Without a vote to spare, a plan to let Alabama voters have their say on a state lottery for the first time in 20 years stayed alive today.
The Alabama Senate passed the bill by a vote of 21-12. Twenty-one was the minimum number for passage because the bill is a proposed constitutional amendment, requiring approval of three-fifths of the 35 senators.
The bill moves to the House, where it faces the same three-fifths requirement. If it wins final passage, it would go on the ballot for voters in the March 2020 presidential primary.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, the sponsor, said he was "pleased, a little surprised, and grateful it's over."
Albritton said head-counts taken before the vote never showed it would get as many as 21 votes.
"I came in fully anticipating this to be a very, very, close vote," Albritton said.
Republicans, who hold 27 seats in the Senate, voted 19-7 in favor of the bill. Among Democrats, the vote was 5-2 against the bill.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, voted against the bill. The Senate stripped out an amendment Singleton had added in committee that Singleton said would have protected jobs and revenues in counties with facilities that offer electronic bingo and pari-mutuel betting. Albritton opposed that amendment. Albritton said his intent was not to change the legal status of any other activity.
Efforts to restore the Singleton amendment today were rejected at Albritton's request.
Albritton did not oppose two amendments proposed by Jefferson County senators and both were adopted.
An amendment by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said nothing in the bill would affect, limit or prohibit any activity authorized by constitutional amendments allowing charity bingo and pari-mutuel wagering in Jefferson County. An amendment by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, was similar, saying the bill would not affect, limit or prohibit any activity occurring pursuant to a constitutional amendment passed before Jan. 1, 2005, including pari-mutuel betting and charity bingo.
Smitherman and Coleman-Madison were the only two Democrats to vote for the bill.
Singleton said he believed the bill defines a lottery too narrowly.
"I think that it does not create enough revenue," Singleton said. "I think it leaves us in the dark age just being a paper lottery. We need to be expansive on that to be able to create, to grow a lottery."
Albritton's bill initially limited lottery games to paper tickets and instant tickets. An amendment was added today to allow tickets to be purchased electronically.
Video lottery games would not be allowed. The bill specifically excludes "mobile or Internet-based games" or simulated casino games.
A separate lottery bill by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, would define a lottery more broadly and would have allowed video lottery terminals at certain locations in counties that have electronic bingo and pari-mutuel betting. McClendon's bill has not been cleared by the Senate Tourism Committee.
McClendon, who voted against Albritton's bill, said his proposal would have raised far more revenue.
Albritton said he believes the simplicity of a paper ticket lottery makes it more likely to pass. He said a broader definition would create uncertainties.
"When you start getting into video gambling, there's lots that we still don't understand," Albritton said. "We've still got the sports gambling coming up. That's going to be involved with the computer and video matters. We've got lots of other things that we've got to deal with and that just opens the wound, if you will, of all the other parties and such. This paper lottery is a simple matter that most of us understand, comprehend and I believe it has the greatest opportunity for passing."
Albritton's plan would apply net lottery revenues to the General Fund and state savings accounts.
The fiscal note for the bill estimates the lottery would raise about $167 million a year in net revenue.
The bill narrowly won approval by the Senate Tourism Committee on Tuesday. The committee did not consider McClendon's bill.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he favored Albritton's bill because it was simpler. He said the process worked well today.
"Not a lockdown or filibuster today," Marsh said. "Amendments were offered. Some were received, some were not. The process worked exactly as it should have. And I'm excited that we've sent a bill to the House that I think they can work with, hopefully get it to the people for a vote in the next year."
The last statewide vote on a lottery came in 1999, when Gov. Don Siegelman's proposed lottery won approval in the Legislature but was rejected by voters.
The Senate passed a lottery bill during a special session called by Gov. Robert Bentley in 2016. The House passed it too, but made changes, and the bill died.
"I think the danger is that if you try to pile anything on top of it other than the lottery I think it's going to have problems," Marsh said.
Albritton was asked about the divided loyalties that have stopped previous lottery bills, including the one in 2016. Some lawmakers oppose expanding gambling. Others are concerned about how changing the Constitution's prohibition on gambling will affect counties that depend on electronic bingo and pari-mutuel betting.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who operate mostly under federal authority, are the dominant gambling entity in the state, with electronic bingo casinos in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka.
Robert McGhee, vice chairman and government relations adviser for the Poarch Band, said today the tribe did not oppose a traditional lottery but opposed a plan that included video lottery terminals or other provisions that he said would expand gambling in Alabama.
Albritton said earlier today, before the vote, that the patchwork of gambling activity makes it hard to round up a consensus.
"The difficulty we have in Alabama is that we've allowed piecemeal occurrences to move out," Albritton said. "And now we have different stages of different types of gambling throughout different parts of the state. And when we try to recapture that into a statewide basis, that's when everything falls apart. Regionalism takes effect and things, so, yeah, it's difficult."
Legislative approval is the main obstacle to establishing a lottery, Albritton said.
"One of the reasons I'm carrying this is because I believe the people of Alabama want to make a decision on this principle," Albritton said. "Most of them I believe want to have a lottery. But they've got to vote on it to do it. That's part of our law. So, we've got to get it through here so that they can make that decision."