In Alabama’s predictable politics, a statewide lottery is often characterized as a magic pill for our systemic funding woes. Depending on the state’s ever-changing list of ailments, proponents say the lottery could pay for public schools or Medicaid or prisons.
Could, that is.
More than 40 states have some form of a lottery. Alabama does not. And since it’s an election year, voters should prepare for a renewal of this never-ending debate about using a lottery to pay for things the state government can’t, or won’t.
On Monday, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox became the latest Alabama politician to propose a statewide lottery. Maddox, a Democrat, is running for governor, and lottery proposals have been a staple of Alabama Democrats for years.
The Alabama Education Lottery, as Maddox calls his proposal, would generate more than $300 million in revenue for public schools, his campaign says. It would specifically pay for college scholarships, statewide universal pre-K, workforce development opportunities and assistance for Alabama’s lengthy roster of under-performing schools.
“This plan,” Maddox said, “will have a transformative effect on the future of Alabama. We can do this type of investment — $300 million-plus dollars — without raising a single dime of taxes.”
Sounds good. In theory, that is.
Here’s where we’ll offer a reminder about the 2016 state Legislature, which spent countless hours trying to usher a lottery amendment onto the November ballot to prop up the state’s sagging Medicaid program. The House passed a lottery bill, but the proposed amendment crashed and burned in the state Senate.
The Monday-morning quarterbacking of that year’s lottery fiasco presented a microcosm of Alabama’s lottery debates. Lawmakers who are stridently anti-gambling because of social or religious concerns were strong. Arguments erupted over the details of the bill — specifically, what form (paper or electronic) would the lottery take? And lawmakers closely aligned to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who operate casinos in Alabama, and the state’s other gambling locations defended their local interests.
It wasn’t just Democrats vs. Republicans. It was like herding cats, too many factions, too many lawmakers wanting something specific included in the amendment.
This editorial board is not an automatic supporter of a statewide lottery. We believe it’s a worthwhile topic, and that Alabamians have long deserved the opportunity to settle the matter with an up-or-down vote. But we are cautious because of (a.) significant societal concerns about gambling and (b.) that without an ironclad, well-written bill, Alabama runs the risk of installing a lottery that is plagued with problems.
Maddox, 45, is a rising star in Alabama politics, and we’re glad he’s brought his lottery proposal to the table. Voters need to hear more details. So do we.