Thursday, April 20, 2017

Craig Ford: When we vote this summer for a U.S. Senator, why not vote on a lottery, too?

  This week, Governor Ivey made the tough decision to hold the special election for our U.S. Senator this summer instead of waiting until next year's elections, as Governor Bentley had planned to do.

  This was not an easy choice to make. It is estimated that a special election will cost the state about $15 million.

  But if we also put a lottery on the same ballot as the U.S. Senate race, we can resolve two major issues for the price of one and take partisan concerns out of the equation.

  During the last lottery debate, some arguments were made that a lottery vote would benefit one political party over the other. But if the lottery is on a primary ballot in August, there wouldn't be any races pitting Democrats against Republicans.

  This special election offers the purest chance to let the people of Alabama finally have an up-or-down vote on a lottery. Having this vote now would further justify the cost of the special election we are already going to have and would remove any concerns about partisanship a lottery vote could have if it were held at any other time.

  The lottery has remained consistently popular with voters throughout Alabama. Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that up to 70 percent of voters want to vote on a lottery, and more than 60 percent would vote “yes” on a lottery if given the chance.

  The devil has always been in the details. Personally, I have always preferred a lottery for college scholarships. That is the only way we can guarantee the lottery proceeds would be used for what they were meant for and not used for budgetary shell games where the lottery goes into the education budget, but then an equal or greater amount of funds gets transferred out of education and goes to something else.

  A lottery for scholarships could guarantee that every child in Alabama can at least attend a two-year school and get their professional certification if they choose not to go to a four-year university.

  But I also understand that many legislators want to use lottery funds to finance infrastructure projects like roads and bridges. And certainly we have a desperate need to improve our infrastructure in this state. Alabama’s death rate from traffic accidents is twice the national average, and a lottery could solve that problem by hiring more state troopers and repairing and expanding our roads and bridges.

  Perhaps the best solution is to put multiple lottery proposals on the ballot (one for scholarships and one for infrastructure and state troopers/first responders) and let the people decide how they want the money to be spent. We could even put the “blank check lottery” on the ballot and let the voters have the option of deferring to the Alabama Legislature on where the money will go (though I personally wouldn’t support any lottery that doesn’t specify exactly how those dollars would be spent).

  There is no question that our state has serious needs that aren’t currently being met. That’s why state leaders keep introducing tax increase proposals like the gas tax and the tax on DVRs and online streaming services.

  But I say no more taxes until we have a lottery vote! A lottery is voluntary (if you don’t want to pay, don’t play) and could raise hundreds-of-millions of dollars for our state. And now is the perfect time to make that vote happen.

  We can have a debate about the merits of different lottery proposals, but there are no more excuses to not take advantage of this opportunity to let the people vote!

  A special election is going to take place. The money is going to be spent. The potential partisan benefits are no longer a part of the equation. Let’s make the most of the opportunity we have in front of us and resolve two issues for the price of one. It’s time to let the people vote!

  About the author: Representative Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

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