Has the Alabama Senate Missed the Jackpot?

Photo Credit:
https://www.al.com/news/2019/04/lottery-in-alabama-will-it-finally-happen-heres-what-you-need-to-know.html (last visited July 22, 2021). 

Written By: Savannah Nixon 

Managing Editor, American Journal of Trial Advocacy 

            At the beginning of March, Republican Senator Del Marsh proposed a constitutional amendment to allow lottery and casinos in the state of Alabama.[1]  However, the proposal fell short by only two votes, gaining 19 out of the required 21 to get the proposed constitutional amendment through the Senate. [2]  19 senators voted in favor of the bill, while 13, all Republicans, opposed the proposal. [3]  The proposal was an attempt to get the issue of gambling in front of Alabama voters for the first time since 1999.[4]  But the questions remain, why did the legislature reject the amendment, and what does this mean for the state of Alabama?

            The constitutional provision that Senator Marsh proposed to amend provides: “[t]he legislature shall have no power to authorize lotteries or gift enterprises for any purposes and shall pass laws to prohibit the sale in this state of lottery or gift enterprise tickets, or tickets in any scheme in the nature of a lottery.”[5]  While this section makes all gambling illegal in Alabama, the state is behind the curve when it comes to enacting legislation change that allows lotteries and gambling.  Alabama is one of only 4 remaining states that has not allowed gambling in some form, whether that be state sponsored casinos or lotteries.[6]  In fact, all states surrounding Alabama, including Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi as of 2019, have state sponsored lotteries.[7]

            The biggest opponents of state sponsored lotteries are religious groups and churches.  Therefore, it is no surprise there is no lottery in the state when one finds out that Alabama is tied with Mississippi as the most religious state in the nation.[8]  With approximately 77% of adults stating that they are “highly religious,” and 82% of adults saying “they believe in God with absolute certainty” it is clear why religion plays a huge role in the debate on gambling in Alabama.[9] There is a number of reasons why religious groups are against the idea of gambling and lotteries.  The first of these reasons stems straight from the source: “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction….”[10]  Based on this Bible exert, some Christians believe that gambling is spiritual suicide, presumedly because gambling is a gateway to sin. [11]  Another argument many religious opposers make, is that gambling and lotteries prey on the poor.[12]  These opponents believe that lotteries are just “another corrosive addiction that preys upon the greed and hopeless dreams of those trapped in poverty.”[13]  In fact, research suggests that those living in extreme poverty, earning an income of $13,000 or less, spend 9% of their income on lottery tickets.[14]  A major Christian belief is a concern for the poor, thus in the eyes of churches and religious groups, anything that may be harmful to the poor, such as gambling, is contrary to Christian morals.[15]

            Despite the history of huge Christian opposition, many Christian leaders have spoken out about “de-emphasizing gambling as an issue.”[16]  For instance, Reverend Neil Reynolds of the University Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa believes that unlike alcohol, gambling is not “an evil that’s going to ruin our community.”[17]  Instead, many Christians may be shifting their views on the issue of gambling once they see where the revenue from casinos and lotteries alike will be spent, such as on education and in rural communities. [18]  Former Governor Don Siegelman who was responsible for the last lottery vote in 1999, feels that it is unlikely that evangelical Christians would organize with the same strength against gambling as they have in the past. [19]  But even with this shift in mindset from some religious groups, it is clear that there still is and possibly always will be religious opponents. [20]  Baptist Minister and professor of history at Auburn University, Wayne Flynt, joked that there will always be people who believe that “gambling [is] something done in ‘godless Yankee places that vote for Hillary Clinton.’”[21]

            Additionally, as history has shown us Alabama laws have become more and more lenient on the issue of gambling. First, the Supreme Court of Alabama gave an opinion to the legislature where it found that betting on dog races is not a constitutional violation to the prohibition of lotteries. [22]  Then in 1980, an amendment to the state constitution legalized charitable bingo in Jefferson County so long as the bingo operation did not distribute more than $7500 in prizes a week. [23]  This was followed by another constitutional amendment that allowed electronic bingo in a Native American tribe owned casino in Macon County.[24]  And most recently, Governor Kay Ivey in May of 2019 signed into law a bill legalizing Daily Fantasy Sports.[25]  Governor Ivey also formed a task force last year to study the impact that lotteries and casinos would have in Alabama. [26]

          With this background in mind, Senator Marsh believed that the March proposed bill had a high chance of getting through Senate, and finally into the hands of voters. [27]  The senator expressed his dismay that the vote felt short of this goal: “[i]t was the people who were going to make this decision…. I’m just really a bit surprised that we didn’t let them do it.”  Marsh suggested that revenue from the lottery, an estimated $194-$279 million, would fund college scholarships and other education needs of the state.[28]  The generated income from casinos, estimated at $260-$393 million from a 20% tax on gambling revenue, would be used to expand internet and healthcare access to the rural communities of Alabama. The senator believed that these proposals could be enough to convince both Alabama legislators and voters to consider the bill more seriously.[29]  The governor even expressed her concern that Alabamians should get the last word, “[m]y commitment remains the same: to let the people of Alabama have the final say on a good bill that, once and for all, addresses a long-standing challenge that has faced our state.”[30]

          The question is how detrimental was this decision for the people of Alabama?  As previously mentioned, the proceeds from the lottery were to be dedicated to the state’s education needs.[31]  Alabama is currently ranked 46th in the nation in overall education and 44th in the percent of associate’s degree holders and bachelor’s degree holders.[32]  The additional funding from the lottery would enable the state to improve its low education ranking and ensure more citizens are able to attend college and university.  Once again, the funding from casinos would be allocated in part to rural healthcare.[33]  Alabama is also ranked low in this category, being 49th, and one of the worst states in the nation for healthcare.[34]  This is yet another example of how the Alabama Senate took the choice of improving upon big problem areas of the state away from Alabama citizens.  While there may still be opponents to casinos and lotteries, the benefits that their revenue could have brought should have been up to the people to decide.  Additionally, there is the problem that Alabama citizens are crossing state lines into neighboring states such as Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee to purchase lottery tickets.[35]  This means that Alabamians are not only being denied the option of a program that supports their needs, but they are forced to support a program that benefits the citizens of other states. 

          Yet, just as the history of gambling in Alabama has been ongoing for 120 years, this may not be an end to the debate.[36]  A new proposal for an Alabama lottery was filed immediately after the vote on Marsh’s proposal was rejected, by Senator Jim McClendon.[37]  The senator recognized that the people in his district want a lottery.[38] McClendon also emphasized the problem of crossing state lines, “[m]y hope is to get through the legislature a bill that allows Alabamians to play lottery games just like they would play in any state that surrounds us.”[39]  It is hoped that the new lottery proposal will reach committee soon, and be voted on yet again. [40]  Thus, there is still a chance for gambling in Alabama. 

[1] Kim Chandler, Alabama Senate Narrowly Rejects Lottery, Casino BillAssociated Press (Mar. 9, 2021), https://apnews.com/article/alabama-del-marsh-bills-legislation-d86e9d92d57a1727c26391ad77597eb1.

[2] See id

[3] See id.

[4] Id. (“Alabama voters in 1999 voted down then-Gov. Don Siegelman’s proposed state lottery.”).

[5] Ala. Const. art. IV, § 65.

[6] Lotteries, Casinos, Sports Betting, and Other Types of State-Sanctioned GamblingUrban Institute, https://www.urban.org/policy-centers/cross-center-initiatives/state-and-local-finance-initiative/state-and-local-backgrounders/lotteries-casinos-sports-betting-and-other-types-state-sanctioned-gambling#:~:text=18%20and%20older.-,Which%20states%20allow%20lotteries%2C%20casinos%2C%20and%20sports%20betting%3F,states%20were%20operating%20a%20lottery. (last visited Mar. 29, 2021).

[7] See id.

[8] Michael Lipka & Benjamin Wormald, How Religious is Your State?Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/29/how-religious-is-your-state/?state=alabama (last visited Mar. 29, 2021).

[9] Id.

[10] 1 Timothy 6:9–10.

[11] See John Piper, Seven Reasons Not to Play the LotteryDesiring God, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/seven-reasons-not-to-play-the-lottery (last visited Mar. 29, 2021).

[12] See id.

[13] Palash Ghosh, Mega Millions Lottery: A Curse and Plague On the PoorInt’l Bus. Times (Mar. 29, 2012), https://www.ibtimes.com/mega-millions-lottery-curse-plague-poor-213929.

[14] See id

[15] See e.g. Job 5:15-16 (““He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth; he saves them from the clutches of the powerful. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth.”); See also Luke 6:20-21 (“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’”).

[16] Alan Blinder, Alabama’s Longtime Hostility to Gambling Shows Signs of FadingN.Y. Times (June 10, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/10/us/alabama-sports-betting-evangelicals.html.

[17] Id.

[18] See id. (quoting former Governor Siegelman: “I think that evangelical Christians of all denominations, many of whom used to be opposed to the lottery, see that if the money is spent on our children, for our children’s education or for some other important public purpose that it’s O.K.,” Mr. Siegelman said, reviving some of his 1999 pitch. “It’s like a donation to the church, or a donation to education, or a donation to veterans.”).

[19] See id.

[20] See id

[21] Id.

[22] Opinion of the Justs., 287 Ala. 334, 251 So. 2d 751 (1971).

[23] Drew Taylor, Alabama’s 120 Year History With Gambling is ComplicatedNews 19,  https://whnt.com/news/will-alabama-finally-legalize-gambling-after-120-year-debate-its-complicated/ (last visited Mar. 31, 2021).

[24] See id

[25] See Zachary W. Anderson, The Alabama Legislature Takes Its Chance on Daily Fantasy Sports, 80 Ala. Law. 456, 457 (2019).

[26] See CBS 42 Digital Team, Gov. Ivey Forms Study Group on Gambling, Lottery in Alabama, CBS 42 (Feb. 14, 2020), https://www.cbs42.com/alabama-news/gov-ivey-forming-study-group-on-gambling-lottery-in-alabama/.

[27] See Kim Chandler supra note 1. 

[28] See id.

[29] Mike Cason, Alabama Senate Rejects Proposal for Lottery, Casinos; Bill Falls 2 Votes Short, AL.Com (Mar. 9, 2021), https://www.al.com/news/2021/03/alabama-senate-starts-debate-on-lottery-casinos-bill.html (Marsh said “I’ve tried to involve everybody in this process in order to get something to the people of Alabama that has a shot at passing.”).

[30] Id.

[31] See Mike Cason supra note 29.

[32] See Nathaniel Rodriguez, Alabama Ranked in Bottom 5 for Education, Study Shows, CBS 42 (Feb. 16, 2021), https://www.cbs42.com/news/alabama-ranked-in-bottom-5-for-education-study-shows/.

[33] See Mike Cason supra note 29.

[34] Adam McCann, Best and Worst States for HealthcareWalletHub, https://wallethub.com/edu/states-with-best-health-care/23457 (last visited Mar. 31, 2021).

[35] See e.g., Tiffany Thompson, No Lottery in Alabama Means Many Are Going to Tennessee For Their Chance at Winning Big, WAFF 48 (Jan. 15, 2021), https://www.waff.com/2021/01/16/no-lottery-alabama-means-many-are-going-tennessee-their-chance-winning-big/.

[36] See Drew Taylor supra note 23. 

[37] Lydia Nusbaum, New Alabama Lottery Bill ProposedWSFA 12 News (Mar. 10, 2021), https://www.wsfa.com/2021/03/11/new-alabama-lottery-bill-proposed/.

[38] See Kim Chandler supra note 1 (“People in my district want a dadgum lottery.”)

[39] See Lydia Nusbaum supra note 37.

[40] Id.

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