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Alabama may revisit lottery this year

Jan 15, 2004, 5:44 am

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State Sen. Pro Tem Lowell Barron expects the lottery to return to Alabama this year as an option to deal with the states continuing budget crisis.

Five years after Alabama voters turned away a lottery referendum and facing what he called the worst budget crisis in his 25 years in Montgomery, Barron, D-Fyffe, told a town hall meeting at Ruhama School in Dogtown on Monday the people will again get a chance to vote on a lottery.

"I think well vote to let you vote on the lottery," Barron told the crowd. "I definitely think it will be one of the proposed solutions. I think we should let the people vote. I will support that."

Barron supported the proposal in 1999 when 54 percent of the voters said no. That was before voters overwhelming rejected Gov. Bob Rileys $1.2 billion tax package in September and before the state faced $300 million General Fund shortfall as lawmakers prepare to return to regular session Feb. 3.

"Ive seen some very difficult times, but what we have here are some of the most difficult times I have ever seen," Barron said.

Jeff Emerson, Rileys communications director, did not return messages Tuesday.

A lottery vote had support at Ruhama, but some wanted clear ideas of what programs would benefit from any new money.

"If lottery money is earmarked for education I see no problem in getting it passed, but if it can be used for other things, the people of this state wont go for it," Dogtown resident Van Akins told Barron.

Others believe the failure to earmark revenues was the downfall of Rileys package.

"Thats the reason I believe the governors thing didnt pass," Catherine Hixson said. "I talked to a lot of people, and thats the reason I see. If it had been for education, I believe it would have passed."

Barron said several legislative leaders tried to advise Riley before he turn his proposal over the voters, but the governor passed on the advice.

"He would listen, but he wouldnt do a darn thing youd tell him," said Barron, who thought the state needed only about a third of what Riley wanted.

The states economic news is not all bad, according to Barron, who said Education Trust Fund revenue has grown by 14 percent over the past few months. A moderate 4-5 percent growth over the next few months could save struggling systems around the state and avoid massive teacher layoffs, he said.

"We feel like the economy is going to grow us out of the problems in education," Barron said.

Trouble remains in the General Fund, where Barron sees that state 25-30 percent below the amount of money it needs to continue services. If the deficit holds, the state could be forced to remove 25,000 people from nursing homes in Alabama, he said.

"Thats how serious our Medicaid problem is," Barron said. "Were not going to grow out of this problem."

Regardless, Barron said new taxes would not be part of the legislative plan until government cuts are complete.

"I can tell you youre not going to get a bunch of new taxes," Barron said. "Were going to ask people in the system to be a participant and not just put it all on the backs of taxpayers."

That means state employees, who pay nothing for health insurance, and teachers, who pay $2 a month for single coverage, could be asked to shoulder more of the burden of rising health care costs.

And more cuts could come.

"The cuts were going to be making are not going to be cosmetic," Barron said. "Were going to get down to the bone."

Times-Journal

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