- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - It’s been more than 15 years since Alabama voters rejected a state lottery. But an Alabama lawmaker said Thursday that it’s time to revisit the idea.

“It’s a voluntary tax. If they don’t want to pay it, you don’t have to play it,” said House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden. Ford introduced the bill Thursday to hold a statewide referendum on establishing a state lottery and steer profits to the state Medicaid program. Ford said gambling should be looked at as a revenue source as lawmakers struggle to put together a general fund budget.

Although Democrats have pressed the idea for years, Ford on Thursday picked up the support of an influential Republican. House Ways and Means General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

“It’s another option on the table to try to help the general fund,” said Clouse, R-Ozark.

Alabamians in 1999 voted down a lottery referendum proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman. Clouse said he was one the few Republicans that supported the lottery then.

The Republican budget chairman said he would also be open to a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Legislators face deep challenges in trying to put together a general fund for the next fiscal year as the budget faces an estimated $290 million deficit. Gov. Robert Bentley said the need is actually much higher when you consider needs in Medicaid and corrections. The state owes money borrowed from a rainy day fund and owes the federal government for Medicaid overpayments.

Ford said Clouse’s support could be encouraging to get other GOP lawmakers on board. House Democrats hold just 33 seats in the House of Representatives.

A lottery would have to be approved by voters and then, if approved, a mechanism would have to be put in place. That could not be done in time to help the budget year that begins Oct. 1. However, Clouse said, it could provide a stream of money in the future to help fund Medicaid, which lawmakers struggle with every year.

“For all practical purposes, the general fund has turned into a Medicaid and prison budget,” Clouse said.

Bentley has proposed to fill the budget hole by raising taxes on tobacco and rental cars and ending some tax credits and deductions.

Bentley on Wednesday warned of deep cuts to state services unless legislators find a way to fill the budget void. The governor said he was willing to bring lawmakers back to Montgomery in multiple special sessions if they don’t approve a “reasonable” budget.

Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard said Thursday that lawmakers still had time to work on solutions.

“We have many more legislative days left. We have lots of ideas that have been presented, some that we’re still working on,” Hubbard said.

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