- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama Legislature is set to give a state lottery the first serious debate since 1999, but many lawmakers say the idea faces tough odds amid continuing disagreements over if, and how, to legalize gambling in the state.

Gov. Robert Bentley is calling lawmakers back to Montgomery on Monday to begin a special session focused on a proposed state lottery to generate money for the state’s Medicaid program. Lawmakers are also expected to debate how the state should use $1 billion the state will receive over the next two decades from oil spill settlement funds.

Bentley called a lottery the “only option that we have left” to get additional funds for the state’s Medicaid program.

“We tried everything else. The Legislature realizes we are not going to pass any more taxes, but they also realize we have a real problem in the general fund, especially dealing with Medicaid,” Bentley said during an interview with The Associated Press.

The governor said he was “reasonably optimistic” ahead of the session’s start, but some lawmakers were less so.

“It’s going to be close,” said Republican Sen. Jim McClendon, who is sponsoring two lottery bills in the upcoming session.

The lottery bill backed by Bentley would authorize a lottery and send the projected $225 million in revenue to the state general fund. McClendon’s second bill is a broader gambling proposal that would establish a lottery and allow video lottery terminals, which can be manufactured to resemble slot machines and video poker games, at four state dog tracks.

The second would raise more money and garner key support from lawmakers angered over the state’s closure of bingo operations at the dog tracks. However, it would likely face more opposition among Republican lawmakers opposed to legalizing gambling machines.

Since the Alabama Constitution bans most games of chance, three-fifths of legislators would have to approve the legislation and a majority of voters would have to approve changing the state constitution to allow a lottery or any other gambling.

Lawmakers must pass a bill by Aug. 24 in order to meet Bentley’s stated goal of getting a lottery on the ballot during the November presidential election.

“If you’ve got a handful of folks that are hell-bent on killing it, that’s problematic,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said of the timeframe. Marsh, when asked for a prediction, estimated a lottery bill had a 60 percent chance of passage.

Marsh said he was more optimistic about the chances for the oil spill settlement bill, which could provide money which could help close a gap in next year’s Medicaid program. State Medicaid officials say the program needs an additional $85 million to avoid service reductions in the upcoming fiscal year.

Alabama is set to get $1 billion in BP settlement funds over the next year 18 years. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse will reintroduce a bill to get the state’s settlement funds up front by doing a bond issue and use the proceeds to pay off state debts and to build roads and bridges in coastal road Alabama. Paying off state debts early would free up money to close most, but not all, of next year’s funding gap in Medicaid.

Bentley, in what has amounted to lottery stump stops at hospitals and nursing homes across the state, said the Medicaid program needs a permanent influx of cash.

“We’ve got a million people on Medicaid and most of those are children,” Bentley said. “I would like to know how many free medical clinics (lottery opponents) are going to set up to take care of the children that need Medicaid and the elderly who need nursing homes.”

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