One of the most influential men in Alabama politics said he expects a statewide lottery and gaming bill to be considered when the Alabama Legislature convenes March 5.
"The speaker is on record as saying a lottery bill won't come from his office but I fully anticipate a gaming and lottery bill to come up," former House District 81 Rep. Mark Tuggle — a Republican from Alexander City who is now the chief of staff for House Speaker Mac McCutcheon — said Thursday during a meeting of his hometown Alexander City Chamber of Commerce at Central Alabama Community College.
Newly-elected District 81 Rep. Ed Oliver and District 30 Sen. Clyde Chambliss joined Tuggle at the forum and diverged in their judgment of a lottery.
As McCutcheon's chief of staff, Tuggle wields considerable power in shaping the committees, which will consider the historic legislation.
"The chief of staff has influence on what we do and don't do," Tuggle said. "(McCutcheon) was told he needed a horse's ass up there and my name kept coming up."
Tuggle said he could support a statewide referendum on a lottery if it is well-crafted and clearly defined. Alabama voters rejected a lottery in 1999, and an attempt to get a lottery bill out of a special session failed in 2016.
Tuggle said his standard for defining a lottery is "join Powerball, maybe the pull-off tickets you buy at stores. Define where the money is going — split it between the general fund and the education trust fund. What the ratio would be is up for debate. The rules should be written where the constituents know exactly what they are voting on. The bill two years ago was not written that way."
While Tuggle seeks clarity on a lottery, he isn't convinced it will inject as much money into the state's bank accounts as many believe.
"You don't pay sales tax on a lottery ticket, so that's money right off the table," Tuggle said. "You join Powerball, you have to sell $900 million to clear $300 million. The best estimates I've seen (on what Alabama would gain) are $200 to 300 million net. But it's got to be the right bill and, so far, we haven't been able to put the right bill together. But it is problematic that so many people drive to Florida and Georgia to buy lottery tickets. You can't argue that."
Tuggle acknowledged religious opposition to a lottery and denied accusations the legislature is protecting the Poarch Creek Indians, which as a federally recognized sovereign nation operates three legal gaming facilities in Alabama, including one in Wetumpka.
"I think the opposition is more from the clergy," Tuggle said. "We also get accused that we've been paid off by the Poarch Creeks to not pass a lottery. The problem is finding 63 members of the House who are agreeable on it and the clergy is not swinging that."
Oliver didn't hesitate when asked his stance on a lottery.
"If you want to buy a lottery ticket, I'm all for it," he said.
But he isn't sure the proceeds would or should go entirely to bolster the education budget, particularly the state's colleges.
"The states around us use it for their post-secondary education but I don't know if that's the right approach for Alabama because we have so many other needs," Oliver said. "When you're talking about (that much money) coming in, you'll have folks lined up for it."
Chambliss knows the public wants the chance to vote on a lottery again but doesn't support it personally.
"The populace says they want to vote on a lottery, probably 60 to 70 percent," he said. "But on the other side, you have two or three years of increasing revenue, then in the out years you don't have it. Then there are the social ills that come with it. It will not solve our problems."
Aside from the lottery, Tuggle said he supports the public deciding if it wants to legalize gambling in Alabama, again if the proposal is clearly understood.
"I have no issue with a voter referendum on gaming," he said. "But two years ago, the legislature was being asked to change the constitution for gaming and just write the rules later. I voted against that piece of garbage because you'd only be able to game at the four dog tracks. There is a dark side to gaming. It's a diminishing revenue stream, believe it or not. Talk to the Poarch Creek Indians about that — they're investing in hotels and cattle. We've got to pursue a compact with the Poarch Creek, then pursue gaming. We're not idiots."