By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
No doubt, Alabama earmarks too much of its revenue. The great majority of Alabama’s taxes are spent before they even are collected because they are designated for certain services: Education, prisons, Medicaid, etc.
But Alabama does this because residents just don’t trust the Alabama Legislature enough to believe it’ll do the right thing when it comes to spending money.
And, for good reason. The Alabama Legislature too often doesn’t do the right thing when it comes to spending money.
So now, Gov. Robert Bentley, in an amazingly brazen attempt at deflection, is calling the Legislature into special session Aug. 15 to establish a lottery.
Alabama is one of the few states in the nation that doesn’t have a lottery. All the states surrounding Alabama, except for Mississippi, have lotteries. Those states have benefited from Alabama lottery players traveling to their states to buy tickets.
Alabama, indeed, should have a lottery. But I have to concede that former Gov. Don Siegelman is correct: Not this lottery.
The proceeds from the lottery would go to the state’s General Fund. To help bail out prisons and Medicaid. To pay for whatever the Legislature decides to pay for.
Medicaid wouldn’t need a bailout if Bentley and the Legislature had simply expanded the program under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Billions would have come from the federal government, creating jobs and economic growth, if only Republicans cared about Alabama instead of their own political futures. Going against all-things-Obama is why Bentley and the Legislature didn’t expand Medicaid. Now, the health care program for the state’s poorest residents is in deep trouble.
Because Dr. Bentley, a physician, and the Legislature didn’t expand Medicaid, hundreds of thousands of Alabama’s working poor have no access to health care.
That’s a selfish, cruel decision by selfish, cruel people who care only about the next election.
If there is a lottery, it must be earmarked toward a purpose other than the General Fund, where the money can be misappropriated in any number of ways.
The best use would be to funnel the money to public education — K-12 schools and public colleges and universities. Using some of the money to provide college scholarships for high school students makes sense. Fully funding the successful Alabama pre-K program and the Alabama Reading Initiative makes sense.
But to dump lottery funds into the General Fund for who-knows-what does not make sense.
Bentley and Republicans in the past have opposed a lottery. Why turn around now? Because the state’s General Fund and Education Trust Fund are in a mess, and Republicans don’t have the courage to enact tax reform or to raise revenue.
No new taxes, right? Except, that philosophy is why the state finds itself in the fiscal disaster it’s in.
And the decisions the governor and lawmakers make when they do have some money coming in are often foolish. The governor, through shenanigans, is using some of the BP oil spill money for renovating the governor’s beach mansion, as reported by Alabama Political Reporter’s Bill Britt and Susan Britt. Surely we have other more important priorities for the BP money. That terrible oil spill isn’t why the governor’s beach mansion needed work.
C’mon. In a poor state like Alabama, why does the governor need a beach mansion in the first place? How about the Luv Guv staying at a hotel or rented condo if he wants to go the beach with his squeeze? And paying for it out of his own pocket like the rest of us.
These kinds of selfish fiscal decisions are why Alabama earmarks so much of its revenue. While it shouldn’t have to be that way, it only makes sense when our leaders do such a lousy job of spending our tax dollars.
A lottery is not a bad idea. A lottery such as that proposed by Bentley is a terrible idea.
We’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a special session that is unlikely to be successful. But even if the lottery passes lawmakers (and it won’t), it’s unlikely Alabama voters will approve. Because a big chunk are religious fundamentalists who believe a lottery is sin. And another chunk doesn’t have faith the money will be used correctly.
Because they don’t trust their elected leaders to do the right thing. And they shouldn’t.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column for Alabama Political Reporter every week. Email: [email protected]