The Alabama House of Representatives today blocked a committee meeting that was necessary for Gov. Robert Bentley's lottery proposal to get on the ballot in the Nov. 8 general election.
That means that if lawmakers still approve a proposed constitutional amendment to allow a lottery during the special session, a special election would be required to place it on the ballot for voters.
Bentley, who proposed the lottery as a way to boost funding for the state General Fund and Medicaid, said this evening he was not giving up, even though it would now require a special election.
The lottery bill had to win approval in a House committee today in order for the House to have a chance to pass it by Wednesday's deadline.
But in an unusual procedural move, the House declined to allow the Economic Development and Tourism Committee to hold a "leave of the House" meeting.
Rep. Alan Harper, R-Northport, House sponsor of the lottery bill, said he was disappointed.
Harper said he did not yet know whether the bill still had a chance of passing during the special session.
The committee has scheduled a public hearing on the lottery bill for 4 p.m. Wednesday.
The House voted 59-33 to allow the committee to meet today. But that fell well short of the four-fifths vote needed to allow the meeting.
"There was a procedural move made that basically will not allow our citizens to vote on this lottery," Harper said.
"I don't know that the lottery bill is dead. I do think we will try to bring it back up again whether it's in this session or a future session. But I'm disappointed that the citizens of Alabama didn't have an opportunity to have their say on this constitutional amendment and voice their opinion."
The Economic Development and Tourism Committee, which Harper chairs, was scheduled to hold a public hearing today on the lottery bill, which has already passed the Senate.
Harper planned to hold the meeting shortly after the House convened today at 3 p.m., but did not set a specific time. People lined up outside the committee room in anticipation of the meeting.
When the House convened this afternoon, Harper asked for permission to hold a "leave of the House" meeting, or a meeting while the House is in session. That requires a suspension of the House rules.
Such requests are normally noncontroversial and are approved on voice votes.
Today, however, Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, a lottery opponent, asked for a roll call vote on suspending the rules.
"Those rules are in place so that our procedures are followed," Johnson said. "We just wanted to be sure that that roll call vote was taken to be clear that that was the will of the House. So that's what we did.
"We asked for the membership to speak and they spoke, on record, and they were not willing to suspend the rules for the committee hearing today."
Bentley, speaking to reporters this evening, said what happened today in the House is an example of the delays that are typical of the legislative process.
"The process sometimes has bumps in the road," Bentley said. "And that, I think, is what has happened today.
"We cannot take our mind off of why we're here. We're here to try to solve an age-old problem that's been going on for thirty-plus years. It's getting worse."
Bentley proposed the lottery as a long-term solution to the state's persistent problems in funding key services, especially Medicaid. About one million Alabamians depend on Medicaid, mostly children, the disabled and the elderly.
"We're dealing with our Medicaid system and trying to adequately fund our Medicaid system so that we do the things that we need to do in this state, and that's help the people who can't help themselves," Bentley said. "This is all about people."
But much of the talk about what happened in the House was about the political maneuvering.
House members could not recall a request for a roll call vote on whether to allow a committee to meet.
Johnson said he made the request because he was concerned the bill was being rushed through the House. It passed the Senate on Friday.
"The people of Alabama deserve that time be put into this bill instead of rushing it through," Johnson said. "It wasn't us that waited. It was the governor that waited until August to call this. It was the Senate that took five days to debate this. And they expect the House to push it through in two days? I think the people deserve better than that."
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, said she had never seen the House rules used in the same way to block a committee meeting during her 14 years in the Legislature.
Coleman said she was angry because voters won't get a chance to have their say about a lottery on the Nov. 8 ballot.
She also disagreed with the argument that the bill was being rushed through.
"The bill is what, five pages long? It didn't take me long to read it at all," Coleman said. "We are smart enough in this body in a 24-hour period to be able to read and make a decision if we're for or against.
"And the committee structure is there so we can actually debate, offer amendments, the public hearing so people can state their case for and against. That didn't happen today because some people literally just don't want this to go on the Nov. 8 ballot."
The Jefferson County Republican Party recently urged its members in the Jefferson County legislative delegation to oppose putting the lottery on the Nov. 8 ballot because of concerns that it would drive up Democratic voter turnout and hurt Republican candidates.
Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, a member of the Jefferson County delegation, was one of the 33 House members who voted against allowing the committee meeting.
All but two of the 33 were Republicans.
Treadaway said he thought representatives who voted against allowing the meeting did so for a combination of reasons. He said his main concern was that he thought the legislation was being rushed.
"Folks had not had a chance to look at it and read it," he said.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, voted against allowing the meeting. During the debate over the motion, Ford pointed out that he had proposed lottery bills for years but that the Republican majority in the House has ignored them.
Ford said Harper could have avoided the need to suspend the House rules by scheduling the committee meeting at a set time and emailing lawmakers to provide the required notice.
Ford characterized that as a $3 million mistake, "Because now if we have to have a special election for the lottery it's going to cost the taxpayers $3 million to hold the election."
Harper said he gave a 24-hour notice that the meeting would be held although he did not give a specific time. The House had set 3 p.m. as its time to convene today.
"We did post with a 24-hour notice without a time on it because we were in session and we would have to request the leave of the House," Harper said. "We had other meetings going on between 12 and 3 today when we came in."
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said the main focus of the special session is now a bill that would allocate the use of a $1 billion oil spill settlement between the state and BP.
The Senate is expected to debate that bill on Wednesday.
The BP bill that passed the House calls for a bond issue estimated at about $639 million, with the BP payments dedicated to paying off the debt.
The bond money would be used to pay off state debts and fund road projects in Baldwin and Mobile counties.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, the sponsor, said it would free up $70 million for the Medicaid, which faces an $85 million shortfall in the budget year starting Oct. 1 and has already cut payments to doctors.
"As far as the House is concerned, that's our first priority, is to look at the BP issue," McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon said it's possible the House could debate the lottery bill on Thursday if it's approved by the committee on Wednesday.