Will Ainsworth: my thoughts on the lottery legislation

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Here are my thoughts on the lottery legislation from this past week that is now dead.

The Alabama Legislature is currently meeting in a special session to consider a constitutional amendment that would create a state lottery with proceeds being used to fund Medicaid, other state agencies, and public education. If it had been approved by lawmakers, the amendment would have gone before the public for ratification in a special election later this year.

The amendment that was presented to the House, however, was so fatally flawed and lacking in detail that I could not, in good conscience, allow it to be enacted, so I opposed its passage.

Alabama currently earmarks roughly 91 percent of the tax dollars you send to Montgomery for specific purposes, which is, by far, the highest percentage in the nation. The next highest state is Michigan, which earmarks 60 percent of its revenues.

Earmarking handcuffs our ability to effectively manage state dollars, and it prevents us from directing funding to the most pressing priority or the most serious need. Without the ability to shift dollars as needed, like you do in your family budget, government cannot be run efficiently.

Even worse, this amendment places earmarks upon earmarks by directing dollars first to the General Fund budget and then further mandating that at least $100 million raised annually will be given directly to Medicaid. Creating a guaranteed slush fund for Medicaid removes any incentive for the agency to cut spending or implement cost-cutting measures, and it prevents those dollars from being used for other General Fund necessities.

Another concern is that the amendment creates an appointed commission whose members would be tasked with overseeing lottery operations, and it prohibits the commission from employing a lobbyist, which is a good thing. The problem comes with the companies that supply the lottery machines, print the tickets, or even run the lottery. If subcontracted by the commission, they would, however, be allowed to employ lobbyists, which violates the very intent of the prohibition.

I have sworn to fight against this kind of Montgomery double-dealing and political sleight-of-hand. As public officials, we must be truthful with the citizens of our state, and this massive loophole is an insult to the people we represent.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we were provided with only half of the information that we need to consider. Enacting a lottery requires two components — a constitutional amendment allowing its creation, and enabling legislation that spells out, in detail, the nuts and bolts of how it will operate. The enabling bill would define what games could be offered, how vendors would be chosen, the odds of winning certain games, and others.

We only considered the constitutional amendment and we would have to consider the enabling legislation in next year’s regular session, once the lottery has been approved. Approving that kind of blank check amendment is a recipe for mismanagement, special interest domination, and possible corruption.

It is much like the proponents are trying to sell you an expensive, high-end sports car, and they highlights its sleek looks and its lustrous paint job, but they won’t let you open the hood to make sure the engine is mechanically sound. They won’t let you take a test drive to determine how it runs. They won’t even allow you to check the tires to make sure they’re not bald.

Anyone who would purchase that sports car and make a long-term commitment on looks alone would be foolish, and anyone who would approve a lottery without first getting to take a look at the “engine” in its enabling legislation would be making a similar mistake.

Other issues, such as the salary that lottery commission members are paid and how they will be held accountable; the administrative costs of the lottery and how they will be determined; and the possibility of opening the door to other forms of gambling, must also be defined.

Until the Legislature is presented with a more thorough lottery blueprint and strict safeguards against abuse, mismanagement, and corruption are put in place, I will not consider voting for the constitutional amendment.

This post is used with permission after first appearing on Rep. Ainsworth’s Facebook page.

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Will Ainsworth represents Alabama House District 27.

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