Thursday, March 18, 2021

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse - Gambling and budgets are priority for Alabama Legislature

  The Alabama Legislature is at the midway point of the 2021 Regular Legislative Session. They have used 15 days of their allotted 30-day legislative session.

  The Senate has been consumed with attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to allow Alabamians the right to vote on whether to have a state lottery along with some casinos and sports betting. The legislature in and of itself cannot authorize this expansion of gambling in the state. Their only authority is to vote to place it on the ballot in order to give citizens the opportunity to allow the state to reap the financial windfall now only afforded the Poarch Creeks.

  There was a critical vote in the Senate last week on the issue. With it being a constitutional amendment, it required 21 affirmative votes. The vote was 19 to 13 in favor, but it lacked the constitutional muster by two votes. Therefore, the measure could be resurrected. However, if it is this close in the Senate, it probably does not have the votes for passage in the House of Representatives.  

  Polls indicate that it would be approved by a vote of the people, probably with a 70 to 30 plurality, and with a majority of Republicans voting in favor. If it is that popular with the people, you probably are asking why in the world would Senators not vote to allow citizens to vote on it. The devil is in the details. The majority of the casinos would go to the Poarch Creeks. Some of the 24 Republican Senators balked at that almost-total monopoly.

  Sen. Del Marsh was not the right sponsor or frontman for the constitutional amendment. He is not totally trusted, especially by the 10 Democrats he has consistently run over and ignored for years while he was President Pro Tem of the Senate. Marsh is also perceived as a pawn of the Poarch Creeks. He is no longer Pro Tem, so nobody is scared of him. A setting sun gives off very little heat.  He is not running for reelection for his Anniston-based district because he could not be reelected. In his last race in 2018, he spent close to $480,000 to his unknown opponent’s $15,000 and only garnered 52% of the vote. That does not portend well for reelection.

  Gov. Kay Ivey needs to come out openly and strongly for the measure and make it her issue and her legacy. It may need to be done in a Special Session later this year. Even then, it will be a tough sell to get through the Senate and then the House.

  Alabama is the Heart of the Bible Belt. If Alabama is the Bible Belt, then the area of Alabama north of Birmingham and all the way to the Tennessee line is the buckle. There are not any casinos in North Alabama, only churches, and most of the churchgoers are Church of Christ or Baptist. They did not allow the sale of alcohol in most of these counties until a few years ago.

  Every state senator in that area is a Republican and all of them voted no, including Gudger of Cullman, Givhan of Huntsville, Butler of Huntsville, Stutts of Florence, and Scofield of Sand Mountain. You can probably bet your bottom dollar that the preachers encouraged their parishioners to contact their senators on Sunday before the vote last Tuesday. You may see the legislature address a simple lottery.

  It may not be a glamorous event in the legislative process, however, the beginning of the most important accomplishment occurred last week when the General Fund Budget passed the Alabama House of Representatives. The House approved a $2.4 billion dollar budget shepherded by the Ways and Means Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark).

  The budget includes a 2% raise for state employees. This raise would amount to an $867 per year raise for a state worker making the median salary of $43,346.

  The budget includes an increase in funding for the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. Other agencies seeing increases in the budget are the Alabama Department of Mental Health at 6.7%, and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency will see a 7.9% increase, mostly for upgrading the state’s driver license system.

  Overall, the budget is 3.3% higher than last year's, which is amazing after a year of COVID-19. It now moves on to the Senate, which more than likely will concur with just a few changes.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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