A lottery is not the answer to Alabama's budget gap

This week in Montgomery, state lawmakers are in special session to discuss a proposed lottery bill that would allow for a statewide constitutional vote on a lottery in Alabama. While such a deal might otherwise be appealing to many longtime proponents of the lottery, the current proposal is flawed in ways reflecting the deep and structural deficiencies of Alabama state government.

Generally, discussion of an Alabama lottery makes reference to neighboring states that have successfully implemented their own lotteries in order to supplement education funding. Key among these examples is the state of Georgia, where lottery proceeds go on to fund the Hope Scholarship program, which according to the Georgia state government, has supported more than 1.75 million students at Georgia colleges, universities and technical schools. Unfortunately for Alabama, the current proposal does not have the glamour of providing much needed assistance to students seeking to further their education and open doors to new opportunities. In fact, the lottery proposal under consideration this week does nothing but allow lawmakers to patch an $85 million budget shortfall in the state’s Medicaid budget as they kick the state’s general fund budget woes down the road once more without a long-term funding solution.

Closing the Medicaid funding gap is an urgent necessity for the state, as more than 800,000 Alabamians, along with their healthcare providers, currently depend on the program for the most basic of medical needs. While the thought of cutting medical access to the poorest Alabamians may already be enough to lead some to demand a fix, the situation is compounded by the fact that many rural hospitals have been forced to close in recent years due to reductions in Medicaid payouts to healthcare providers. As those hospitals close, access to nearby medical care is lost for entire counties in Alabama.

The budget situation in Alabama is dire, but contrary to the statements of Governor Robert Bentley, a lottery is not the only option available to address the state’s general fund budget gap. Political expediency should not be the deciding factor in whether tough decisions are made to right the ship in Montgomery. To assert that the choices are to create a lottery or close county hospitals, it could be suggested that some elected officials would rather see constituents deal with the consequences of hospital closures than formulate a steady, long-term plan to fund even the most basic services of state government.

Legislators are essentially sent to Montgomery to do one job: pass a budget that covers the state’s needs. If they cannot, or will not, do that, then they have failed the constituents that sent them to the State House. A special session called by the governor does not change the fact that the budget previously passed by the Alabama legislature was too stingy even for a government that recently closed DMV offices in twenty eight of its sixty seven counties. By shifting the revenue load even more into the realm of “sin” taxes, elected officials would further solidify gas station attendants as the state’s tax collectors, as cigarettes, alcohol, and lottery proceeds become the bedrock of Alabama’s funding pool for state troopers and doctors. Under such a scenario, Alabama’s public services would be dependent on the continued smoking, drinking, and gambling of its residents – a reality that is absurd in itself. Regardless of one’s moral views of gambling, lotteries are a bad way to fund the government.

The state’s long-term interest should take priority over the short-term political gains of politicians or parties. Alabama deserves lawmakers that make difficult, and sometimes politically challenging decisions that will set this state on the right track for future generations. A lottery created to prop up an ailing general fund is not the right choice for Alabama, and such a move would be a lasting mistake for the state.

Hunter Richey is a senior majoring in economics and political science.

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