Alabama senators divided on lottery bills

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FILE – In this Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016 file photo, a sign shows the estimated Powerball jackpot in Spring, Texas. Players will have a chance Wednesday night at the biggest lottery prize in nearly a year. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama senators on Wednesday remained divided on lottery proposals as they tried to strike compromise on gambling that has so far been elusive.

Senators began debate on dueling lottery proposals. One bill is a proposal backed by Gov. Robert Bentley to establish a state lottery. The other would authorize a lottery and also allow electronic lottery terminals — which can be similar to slot machines or video poker — at four state dog tracks.

“I think there is a chance that we will get something to the House. I think there is a chance that we won’t,” said Sen. Jim McClendon, who is sponsoring both bills. “The single biggest issue is there is no perfect lottery bill that everyone can agree upon all the elements,” said McClendon, R-Springville.

Bentley brought lawmakers into special session to debate his proposed lottery as a means to fund the state’s perpetually cash-strapped Medicaid program. With the governor’s push, the Alabama Senate gave a lottery the first serious debate since then-Gov. Don Siegelman proposed the idea in 1999.

Many lawmakers agreed opposition has dissipated since then. But Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, said he and eight other senators “think the state shouldn’t sponsor vice.”

Lawmakers began debating the dog track bill, which also asks the governor to seek a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Some lawmakers said they wanted to help dog tracks, where electronic bingo casinos and workers were put out of business by state enforcement actions, effectively giving the Poarch Band of Creek Indians a monopoly on machine gambling.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he supported the dog track bill, saying it would provide jobs and more revenue to the state.

“The VLT (video lottery terminal) machines from what we’ve seen from other states have a 40 percent higher revenue return than just a regular lottery,” Singleton said.

Singleton said he was trying to remain optimistic that lawmakers could strike a middle ground.

Bentley estimated a lottery alone would raise $225 million. McClendon projected the machine bill would raise more than $400 million, and $100 million of that would be steered to education.

Alabama is one of six states — along with Mississippi, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada — without a state lottery.

Because the Alabama Constitution bans most games of chance, three-fifths of legislators would have to approve any gambling legislation and a majority of voters would have to approve changing the state constitution to allow a lottery or gambling. Bentley wanted to put the lottery proposal before voters during the November presidential election.

The legislation needs 21 votes to clear the Alabama Senate and move to the House of Representatives.

“I believe there are eight factions out there. No one has 21 votes,” Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said.

McClendon urged senators to approve a bill and let voters decide the issue.

“I would ask for you to trust their judgment when it comes to this,” McClendon said.

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