Possibility of state lottery remains in limbo as residents pressure lawmakers
By Kate Northrop
The jackpots for multi-state games Mega Millions and Powerball are at record highs this week, and Alabama residents are doing all they can to join in on the fun while they wait endlessly for an approval of a state-run lottery of their own.
Alabama is one of five U.S. states that does not yet have its own state lottery. Locals are flustered with the hassle of having to drive to one of four bordering states to buy their tickets and spending money on gas that could otherwise be saved if there were local retailers in the area.
Many residents find themselves flocking to Florida to get lottery tickets. One retailer, Flora-Bama Liquor and Lotto, sits right on the border between the two states on Perdido Key Drive in Pensacola. Between 9:00 am and 9:00 pm on Friday, employees were serving customers left-and-right and recalled people lined up waiting for their turn to get their draw game tickets.
Players waiting in line talked about what they would do with the winnings if they were to hit the jackpot. Right now, the Powerball jackpot is up to $730 million while the Mega Millions jackpot sits at a whopping $850 million.
"I'm gonna buy a house on the beach," a woman from Montgomery, AL told WKRG. Montgomery is a three-hour drive away from the retailer.
"I'm from north Alabama, so I definitely wouldn't live in north Alabama anymore," another customer named Jason Slay said. "I'd be living somewhere down here."
For another player, Joe Phillips, it was the first time he visited the store but not his first time playing the lottery. Phillips is from Orange Beach, AL, less than ten minutes away from the retailer.
"I keep a running of what I do," he told reporters. "I think total last year in the lottery, all the different forms of lottery, I won like 260 bucks, but I have no idea how much I spent. I don't keep a running total of that. I'm afraid to look."
Another Florida retailer, Big Daddy's Liquors on FL-79 in Esto, gets a ton of customers from Alabama looking to play the lottery. In fact, a majority of the store's ticket sales come from Alabama residents. In an interview with WKRG, store owner Mike Patel remarked that almost 75 to 80 percent of his customers were from Alabama. He reports even more customers when jackpots are especially high.
Other players often visit Tennessee and Georgia to buy their lottery tickets as well, and now with the recent addition of the Mississippi Lottery a little over a year ago, residents can now travel to Mississippi.
In Georgia, convenience stores, gas stations, and other local retailers in Tallapoosa, GA were packed as Alabamians lined up for their tickets. John Weeks and JoAnn Howard, two players from Oxford, AL, told CBS 42 that they like to make a fun day out of their trips over state lines. Oxford is about a 40-minute drive from Tallapoosa, GA.
"It's fun. We come over and we listen to music," Weeks said in an interview. "We sing a lot. You know. We come over here, have lunch, and we like to enjoy the beautiful day."
Other players are not so forgiving of the extra distance they need to travel just to play the lottery, citing the inconvenience of a lack of nearby retailers.
"Very frustrating," Don Broadenas of Birmingham, AL concluded. "I could have stayed at home and been done in 10 minutes." It's no wonder he is annoyed — Birmingham is about an hour and a half away from Tallapoosa, GA.
One way Alabama residents could shorten their drive is by using the free Lottery Places app, which can locate lottery retailers in any state, and shows people in Alabama which out-of-state lottery stores would be the closest to them.
Apart from figuring out the closest lottery store over the border, players are scratching their heads as to why legislation is not actively trying to advocate for keeping potential funding for education and other good causes within the state. All those extra dollars spent in other states, according to Howard, could have benefited residents living in the state.
"If you did nothing else but take the lottery money and put that into education, our students would be so much higher internationally, and we need that," Howard argued.
Governor Kay Ivey set up the Study Group on Gambling Policy to gather facts that would help settle the issue of a statewide lottery between Legislature and voters. Since the ban on gambling in 1999, lawmakers have proposed more than 180 lottery and gambling bills. Courts have also confirmed the state's ban in at least 18 different decisions since then.
Lottery Post has documented numerous such attempts at starting a lottery in the state.
The study group had a poll conducted that asked 500 Alabamians planning to vote in the 2022 general election their opinions on legal gambling in the state. Overall, the poll indicated that residents strongly support the implementation of a state lottery, with over 70% of respondents in favor.
The poll also revealed that, while a portion of Alabamians personally do not gamble, some are willing to stand behind others who do. 51% of respondents outright favored the legalization of gambling in Alabama, while 22% said that they personally opposed legalized gambling but believed that other Alabamians should be allowed to gamble legally.
Last February, Governor Ivey also set up a task force to determine whether casino gaming and a state lottery would benefit the state. The results? A lottery alone could generate anywhere between $200 to $300 million annually.
Attitudes seem to have shifted, and with the next legislative session beginning Feb. 2, the issue may soon come up once more.
"As far as a lottery, trying to travel alone, a lottery kind of bill can go by itself or it may get combined with other types of gambling," Alabama State Senator Arthur Orr explained.
However, it will take more than passing a bill to implement a lottery since there are a few other moving parts that would need attention. Creating a state-run lottery would require an amendment to the state Constitution if the bill were to be passed. Legislators would also need to figure out and specify where the revenue from the lottery would be allocated.
"Is it general fund, education, prisons... you name it," Senator Orr clarified. "A very complex and potentially controversial piece of legislation like a lottery gambling bill would be difficult to pass in a normal session, but with COVID, that makes it all the more difficult for a gaming type legislation to pass."
Senator Greg Albritton echoed Senator Orr's reasoning as to why it is taking so long for a bill to be introduced.
"I would suggest that there's probably infighting between all the parties that want to have gaming and gambling as to how they are going to benefit from any gaming bill that's presented," Alabama State Senator Greg Albritton told NBC 15.
While lottery bills have been introduced in the past, lawmakers could not agree on where the funds generated from a state lottery would be distributed. Senator Albritton expects that the next conversation will look a bit different, with the focus now on who will control the funds, not how they will be distributed.
"I know there are bills prepared and are ready to be dropped and to be filed, but I don't believe all of them," he said. "In fact, I believe most of them conflict with one another."