Greg Albritton

Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore).

Alabamians are hungering for a lottery and will approve it if they get a chance to vote on it, according to the man who authored the bill that passed the Senate on Thursday.

The lone Deep South state without a lottery will get that opportunity if the Alabama House of Representatives passes the bill next without substantial changes, Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) said.

Albritton proposed a state lottery with paper tickets and fought off legislators who favored expanding electronic gambling. The bill needed 21 votes to advance through the Senate and it passed 21-12. Republicans voted 19-7 for the bill and Democrats voted 5-2 against.

“I was surprised,” Albritton said. “When we did a head count, we didn’t have enough going in. I thought we’d wind up with 16 or 17. We didn’t have the support of the minority or a good portion of our Republican senators. It was an act of faith — or an act of desperation, whatever you want to call it.”

A public referendum March 3, 2020, the date of the presidential primary, won’t be nearly that close among a citizenry with an appetite to play, Albritton said. Alabama residents last voted on a lottery in 1999 and rejected it 54 to 46 percent.

“According to what I’m hearing from my constituents, I am told by everybody, ‘Give us the right to do this. Don’t make us drive to Tennessee and Georgia and Florida,’” Albritton said. “I think if the people get to vote on it, it will pass substantially. That’s not a hope; that’s a realization.”

The Senate passed a lottery bill in 2016 but it died in the House, a historical fact which concerns Albritton.

“We have had discussions with their leadership but I’m not sure what they’ll do,” he said. “The last time we got it through the Senate, the House played their games and got it killed. I hope they’ve learned their lesson. And this time it barely got through (the Senate), so we’ve got to have the House’s help without them playing with it.”

The Legislative Services Agency estimates the lottery would supply $167 million annually in net revenue once it is fully implemented.

According to the bill, proceeds will first be used to pay for the lottery’s operating cost, then to repay transfers made from the Alabama Trust Fund to the General Fund in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015. After that is paid off, half the annual balance will go to the General Fund and half will go to a General Fund reserve until the reserve reaches 10 percent of the General Fund appropriation for the current fiscal year.

“That’s preparing for a rainy day,” Albritton said.

Afterward, remaining proceeds will go to a Lottery Trust Fund created within the state treasury. Once the balance in the Lottery Trust Fund reaches 10 percent of the General Fund appropriation for the current fiscal year, the remaining proceeds will go to the Alabama Trust Fund.

Albritton said he agreed to use lottery revenue to supply the proposed reserve fund to get the support of Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville). Chambliss’ bill establishing the reserve passed the Senate earlier this week.

“He wanted to use (the lottery) as a means to fund the emergency fund,” Albritton said. “He wasn’t going to vote for the lottery without that protection and I got his vote.”

While opponents claim the proposal protects the Poarch Creek Indians’ gambling operations at the expense of dog tracks, Albritton said he was determined to keep his lottery bill streamlined and uncomplicated and is proud of how he got the votes to pass it.

“It was all done on the floor, not behind the scenes,” he said. “That’s where the votes came from. It was open and public, a true legislative process.

“In the past, the reason we haven’t gotten a lottery passed is all the other gambling interests used it to develop their own plan. There were too many hands in the pie, too many conflicting things. This time, I wanted something simple as we could get so we could get it passed — paper (tickets) and avoid the VLTs (video lottery terminals) and the casinos.”

Opponents in the legislature are concerned Albritton’s lottery proposal will let the Poarch Creek — who are immune from state law as a federally recognized sovereign nation — continue to provide video gaming the dog tracks can’t offer if the Poarch Creek agree to a compact with the state. The Poarch Creek are on record opposing the expansion of gambling and video gaming in Alabama without establishing a gaming commission.

But Albritton said those already offering video gaming will not be affected by his bill.

“We can’t do anything with the Poarch Creeks,” Albritton said. “We had to cross swords with the other interests and we stood our ground. First, we said we would do no harm to other entities who have already got their thing by hook or by crook. We took several amendments to satisfy the concerns of all those who have gambling already so they can maintain what they have. It kept those folks intact. But we said, ‘There will be no additional video gaming. You’ve got what you have and we’ve got the lottery and that’s it.’”

Another lottery proposal by Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) would have expanded gambling and created a gambling commission but it never reached the Senate floor.

“Sen. McClendon and I have argued over this for years,” Albritton said. “Jim’s bill and three or four other amendments that got tabled all went out to expand gambling and video terminals in several facilities throughout the state. It would open the state up to those activities. But that was changed for the lottery. That is restricted.”

The state’s Education Trust Fund won’t receive lottery money under Albritton’s bill but he said the General Fund, which finances all non-educational departments, needs more help, especially with the federal government saying the state must spend more on child healthcare programs and the U.S. Department of Justice threatening a lawsuit if the state doesn’t overhaul its prison system.

“The Education Trust Fund got a half-billion dollars more this year,” Albritton said. “The needs in the General Fund are multiple and more and the income stream for the General Fund is extremely limited.

“We haven’t expanded Medicaid but we’ve got the feds telling us we’ve got to pay more in premiums for the ones we do cover. We’ve been told the estimates for the upcoming year in the budget I’m working on is an extra $34 million on CHIP and ALL Kids right now. Next year it will increase to $80 million and that’s new money too. That’s the federal government — you pay more and get less. Then we’ve got the DOJ on our case about the prisons.”

CHIP is the Children’s Health Insurance program for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. ALL Kids is low-cost, comprehensive healthcare insurance for children under 19.