Ken Hare in Depth: Odds stacked high against Alabama lottery

Ken Hare in Depth: Odds stacked high against Alabama lottery

Parker Griffith, the Democratic candidate for governor, has released more details on his proposal for a state lottery to bolster education. But I would advise Alabama gamblers not to put their money on a lottery bill passing even if Griffith were to be elected. The odds are stacked against it.

Griffith wrote on his website that he expects a state lottery would generate about $250 million a year in revenues. He said he would use the funds to cover a portion of the costs for Alabama high school graduates to attend a two-year community college or a work-training program. Other funds would be used to improve access to pre-kindergarten education.

There are pro and con arguments that can be mounted on whether Alabama should have a state lottery, but I'll save that discussion for a future column. In this one, I'll simply focus on whether state voters will get the chance to decide the issue.

Frankly, it's a long, long shot.

To start with, Griffith is a decided underdog in the November general election. He faces a better-funded and popular incumbent in Gov. Robert Bentley, and Alabama voters have failed in recent elections to choose anyone but a Republican for a statewide political office.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that Griffith manages to become the state's next governor. If he were to somehow win the election, he still would have huge obstacles to overcome to make a state lottery a reality.

First, he would have to get the Alabama Legislature to approve putting the issue on the ballot. That would be no easy task, for many reasons.

For instance, I believe the Legislature remains reluctant to take on the issue of gambling in any way, shape or form. Memories of the long-running federal probe into allegations of gambling-related corruption in the Legislature are still raw even three years later.

Assuming Griffith were elected, he would face a major political hurdle as well. The Legislature will remain dominated by Republicans, who would be reluctant to give a new Democratic governor any victories -- especially one as major as getting lottery legislation approved. For that reason a case could be made that electing Democrat Griffith actually would decrease the odds of a lottery bill being approved by a Republican Legislature.

Then there is the opposition that would be mounted against a lottery bill. Some Alabamians and, I believe, a significant number of legislators would oppose any expansion of gambling.

But a lot of legislators who have voted for gambling in the past, especially some of Griffith's fellow Democrats, almost certainly would oppose a lottery as well. Many of those pro-gambling lawmakers have strong ties to existing gambling operations, and a lottery would drain gambling revenues directly from the state's existing casino-style gambling and tracks.

In fact, if there is one issue that might unite Indian gambling and non-Indian gambling interests in Alabama, it could be a shared interest in defeating a state lottery.

So it would be difficult for any governor to develop a coalition to get a lottery bill through the Legislature, but it would be especially problematic for a governor who is a Democrat to get such a bill through a Republican-dominated Legislature.

But again for the sake of argument, assume the Legislature did pass such a bill to put a lottery proposal before the public. It would be no slam dunk that the voters of Alabama would approve it.

Past polls have shown that many Alabamians supported a lottery in concept. But that's a far cry from voting for a specific lottery bill.

Just ask former Gov. Don Siegelman. Siegelman ran for office in 1998 almost solely on the issue of a state lottery. I recall press conferences in which then-candidate Siegelman would be asked about issues seemingly far afield from a lottery, and he would respond by talking about a lottery anyway. So his election was seen as a strong indication of public support for a lottery.

But when Siegelman successfully led the effort to get a specific lottery bill before the voters in a referendum in 1999, the voters soundly rejected it.

As Siegelman found out the hard way, it's one thing for voters to say they want a state lottery in concept. But when a specific proposal is on the ballot, some voters might want the revenue to go to education, some might want it to go to Medicaid, while others might want it to offset a reduction in the state tax on groceries. Some voters might object to how a lottery would be run and who would benefit -- a weakness in Siegelman's proposal.

Again, I am not arguing for or against a state lottery. But I do believe that the odds of Alabama seeing a state lottery approved at any point in the near future are somewhere between slim and none.

Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

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