Walsh’s article ‘Illegal gambling allowed to operate in Alabama’ one in a series on gambling recently honored

EDITOR’S NOTE — The article by Maggie Walsh below ran in the Oct. 6, 2016, issue of The Alabama Baptist and is one of several that ran in a series on gambling. The series recently won first place in Baptist Communicators Association’s 53rd Wilmer C. Fields awards competition so we are highlight it in TAB’s Top Story section on the website this week.

Oct. 6, 2016

By Maggie Walsh
The Alabama Baptist

Electronic bingo machines were ruled “illegal” under state law by the Alabama Supreme Court in March. So why are there still electronic bingo machines in Macon and Lowndes counties?

That is the question of the hour. The VictoryLand-bingo saga has been going on for so many years that some Alabamians don’t even blink when yet another news story surfaces.

For instance most recently Gov. Robert Bentley and Attorney General Luther Strange sent a letter to sheriffs and district attorneys in Macon and Lowndes counties reminding them of their duty to enforce the state’s gambling laws and set a Sept. 30 deadline for submitting a plan of action.

Bentley and Strange also sent letters to officials in all counties with constitutional amendments related to bingo gambling. While electronic bingo machines were still being operated in Greene County in 2015 (as shown in the above photo), the letter to officials there did not indicate wrongdoing.

The Alabama Baptist could not confirm by press time when or how the gambling operations were shut down in Greene County, if they were.

But district attorneys E. Paul Jones of Macon County and Charlotte Tesmer of Lowndes County as well as Lowndes County Sheriff Big John Williams had responded to the letter at press time, according to Yasamie August, Bentley’s press secretary.

Pass-the-plate basis

Their responses indicate a continuing of what has been a pass-the-plate routine of law enforcement.

Tesmer claimed a conflict of interest prohibited her from pursuing action against electronic bingo operations in Lowndes County. At the same time, Williams said budget constrictions are the halting factor to his taking action, adding that he would fulfill his duty when he receives a court order — which Tesmer says she cannot provide. So in Lowndes County there’s a stalemate.

Birmingham lawyer Eric Johnston said, “The next step would be enforcement from the state level like from the attorney general with the governor giving him support to do what he needs to do,” explaining that Strange would need to investigate VictoryLand and then Bentley would have to supply the police manpower to support Strange in enforcing the law.

“The state has to close it down,” Johnston said.

Jones’ response echoed Williams’ saying the money just isn’t there for him to consider raiding VictoryLand.

Jones has been the most outspoken about his role in this situation, saying to multiple news sources his duties “do not include the investigation of crimes,” only “the prosecution of crimes.”

Therefore the investigation of VictoryLand is solely on the shoulders of Macon County Sheriff Andre Brunson, who had not responded at press time.

Jones closed his response to Strange and Bentley by saying, “Under the circumstances, I am curious as to what action the two of you would expect me to take?”

The enforcement of gambling laws has been an issue ever since Bentley took office in January 2011. His first action was to dismantle former Gov. Bob Riley’s Task Force On Illegal Gambling and “fully support” Strange’s authority to lead the fight against illegal gambling. Then Bentley moved the responsibility from Strange to local law enforcement in 2015.

Thus it comes down to district attorneys and sheriffs. But at VictoryLand in Macon County and White Hall and Southern Star casinos in Lowndes County, the laws are not being enforced.

Other articles in the series were:

AUM report on gambling dubbed ‘unreliable, specious’ by UNA professor
By Martha Simmons

When Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM) released a report in April 2015 predicting a big win for state coffers if new forms of gambling are legalized in Alabama, pro-gambling interests were elated. Now, however, an economics professor at the University of North Alabama in Florence is giving the report an “F.”
In a review for the Alabama Policy Institute published March 10, Keith D. Malone slammed AUM’s “Assessment of Lottery and Gaming Programs Across the United States,” citing it as “unsophisticated,” “unreliable,” “specious” and demonstrating a lack of rigor and diligence, among other criticisms.

“The findings of the AUM report are scientifically unsound and incapable of intelligently informing policymakers or the public as to the implications of legalizing gambling or adopting a lottery in the state of Alabama,” Malone wrote in his “A Review of the AUM Report on the Legalization of Gambling in Alabama.”

The AUM report was commissioned by Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and prepared by the university’s Institute for Accountability and Government Efficiency (IAGE). Marsh released the report in 2015 while the state Legislature was considering a number of gambling proposals, including a bill to help fund Medicaid with a state lottery.

Asked by The Alabama Baptist for Marsh’s response to Malone’s review, spokesman William Califf referred questions to Cathy Crabtree at AUM, who authored the report along with Suman Majumdar and Jeff Blancett.
Crabtree did not return a call seeking comment but AUM spokeswoman Marla Vickers said, “Although an issue can be examined using various different levels of analytical techniques, both Dr. Malone and the IAGE found that a lottery would be of monetary benefit to the state. While we certainly respect the opinion of Dr. Malone, we stand by our work.”

Marsh spokesman Califf added, “With respect to the legislation, as you may know, Sen. Marsh has decided not to pursue any type of gaming legislation this session.”

But in the midst of budget debates in the 2015 legislative session Marsh and other gambling proponents hailed the AUM report as proof that gambling would salvage the state’s economy by pumping in $400 million in new revenue, creating 11,000 new jobs, and having annual economic impact of $1.2 billion.
That’s nonsense, according to Malone, who contends the numbers resulted from “unsophisticated analysis that render it scientifically unsound.”

Malone said his review of the AUM report is not intended to rewrite or correct it but to point out its “defects,” chief among them its brevity and lack of depth: The entire document is 15 pages long with only 12 pages of substantive information and Alabama-specific information occupying only three pages. By contrast a similar project conducted for the Florida Legislature in 2013 weighed in at more than 700 pages.

Noting that Alabama is 1 of only 6 states without a lottery, the AUM report reviewed the percentage breakdown for lottery prizes, administrative costs and tax revenue from lotteries in five adjacent and nearby southern states — Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee — as well as the U.S. average for all states with lotteries. Malone’s review criticizes the AUM report for failing to examine its own data revealing annual increases in administrative costs of up to 175 percent in those five southern lotteries in just two years, while revenues and prize payouts typically fell.

The AUM report was broadly circulated “and repeated uncritically in the media,” Malone said. The Alabama Baptist, however, refuted the report’s conclusions shortly after it was released, asserting that its numbers simply didn’t add up. The AUM report projected $331.7 million in annual revenue for a state-run lottery in Alabama, but The Alabama Baptist figured the number would be more like $272 million.

Malone projects the state would realize even less — $133.7 million to $249.1 million, depending on which state Alabama is compared. Studies show that interest and participation in gambling vary widely from one state or region to another, Malone noted.

To arrive at projections for casino-style gambling in Alabama’s four slot machine-style bingo casinos, the AUM report based its findings on 11 states, with Mississippi being the only southern state included, even though Florida and Louisiana both allow casino gambling in land-based or riverboat casinos. “It is self-evident that Nevada — home of Las Vegas and hundreds of casinos that collectively bring in nearly $1 billion per month — is incomparable to Alabama,” Malone wrote.

He added that AUM cited a single study as its source for figuring potential annual revenue, but that the report’s authors “have not responded to requests to explain the provenance of this study, which is proprietary and not publicly available.” As a result, Malone said, “All predictions in the AUM report with regard to casinos in Alabama are suspect or unsound.”

Yet another problem with the AUM report, Malone said, is that the projected numbers are for gross tax collections, not net tax collections. “This is important because gross tax collections do not reflect the ‘cannibalization’ of existing tax revenue as Alabama residents redirect spending from current uses to gambling — from grocery stores to gambling halls, so to speak — an effect also known as ‘spending displacement,’” Malone said.

Moreover, the AUM study fails to address the social implications of gambling, which “can turn net changes in tax revenue from positive to negative.”

Bottom line, Malone indicated, the AUM report isn’t worth the 15 pages it’s written on.

“Public policy based on unsound premises is inevitably bad public policy — and can have extremely harmful consequences,” Malone wrote. “Making sound, reliable policy decisions requires comprehensively and rigorously considering the implications of those policy decisions. To that end, the AUM report is of essentially no value to Alabama policymakers.”

Final court ruling against VictoryLand could end electronic bingo saga
By The Alabama Baptist

Using firm language, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against VictoryLand’s casino forfeiture case March 31. The decision allows the state to destroy more than 1,200 electronic bingo machines it confiscated from the casino and keep more than $200,000 in cash seized during the 2013 raid.

“(The March 31) decision is the latest, and hopefully the last, chapter in the more than six years’ worth of attempts to defy the Alabama Constitution’s ban on ‘lotteries,’” the Court stated in its opinion. “It is the latest, and hopefully the last, chapter in the ongoing saga of attempts to defy the clear and repeated holdings of this Court beginning in 2009 that electronic machines like those at issue here are not the ‘bingo’ referenced in local bingo amendments.  “All that is left is for the law of this State to be enforced.”

Attorney General Luther Strange said of the ruling, “[It] is abundantly clear that electronic bingo is illegal and repeated court challenges to the contrary will not change that fact. I cannot say it any better than the Court itself.  “It is now up to the governor, ALEA (Alabama Law Enforcement Agency) and local authorities to ensure that the law is properly enforced.”

Eric Johnston, a Birmingham lawyer who represents the Alabama Policy Institute and Alabama Citizen’s Action Program, said he believes the Court’s ruling also has implications that reach further than bingo and possibly into statewide lottery and fantasy football debates. “I have never seen the Alabama Supreme Court so direct and so detailed in what they were saying on any subject. They’ve made it real clear about what gambling is.”

VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor held a news conference April 4 and said the casino would reopen early this summer despite the ruling. Macon County Sheriff Andre Brunson said the “games played in Macon County will be tested and approved to my satisfaction. Any person seeking to interfere with the operation of bingo games in this county will have legal issues to deal with from my office,” reported the Montgomery Advertiser.

Gov. Robert Bentley shifted the responsibility of enforcing anti-gambling laws from executive-level sources to local officials in November 2015.

Senate Bill (SB) 320, which is currently progressing through the Legislature, would clarify that voters in Macon County, where VictoryLand is located, intended to vote for electronic bingo when they passed bingo amendments in 2003. Also moving through the Legislature, companion bills SB 340 and House Bill (HB) 419 propose amendments that would allow electronic bingo in Greene County, home of Greenetrack gambling complex.

As for the fantasy football debates, SB 114 and HB 56 seek to establish the Fantasy Contests Act to regulate the operation of fantasy or simulated sports contests.

Strange said April 5 that paid daily fantasy sports contests constitute illegal gambling and issued cease and desist letters to DraftKings and FanDuel.  “As Attorney General, it is my duty to uphold Alabama law, including the laws against illegal gambling,” Strange said in a press release. “Daily fantasy sports operators claim that they operate legally under Alabama law. However, paid daily fantasy sports contests are in fact illegal gambling under Alabama law.”

Alabama is among 11 other states where paid daily fantasy sports contests are illegal.

State lottery 1 of 4 possible solutions for health care system
By Maggie Walsh

Gov. Robert Bentley announced July 19 that he is planning to call a special session of the Alabama Legislature in late summer or early fall to find funding for Medicaid, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. A possible solution to the $85 million Medicaid shortage is a state lottery.

Medicaid recently announced it would cut payments to doctors beginning Aug. 1, which would make up about $15 million of the shortfall.

But a state lottery is just 1 of 4 possible solutions for the state’s health care system. Other options include:

  • Splitting the BP settlement for the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
  • Transferring money from the state’s Education Trust Fund to the General Fund (this would be the second transfer of its kind, the first taking place in 2015 with $80 million).
  • Creating new tax revenues, such as sales taxes and revenue transfers.

At press time, Bentley had not announced what options would be on the table during the special session, and simply said that proposals he’s made before — like those mentioned above — could be reconsidered according to al.com.

Yasamie August, Bentley’s press secretary and National Governor’s Association coordinator, said in mid-July that the governor “is considering every possible option to alleviate the funding problems,” the Montgomery Advertiser reported.

In 2015 when the Legislature was considering a gambling compact with Poarch Band of Creek Indians to alleviate the General Fund shortfalls, Bentley shared with The Alabama Baptist (TAB), “I just don’t think we ought to fund government with gambling.” However, at the time he said that while he’s “totally opposed” to expanding gambling in the state, he believed an agreement with the Poarch Creeks might help the state budget and keep gambling at its current levels in the state. Much like now, Bentley called a special session to address the state budget and the proposed agreement with the Poarch Creeks died in that session.

If a state lottery is, in fact, Bentley’s current solution to Medicaid’s struggling budget, it would require state legislators to move fast. They would have to pass a constitutional amendment through both the House of Representatives and the Senate by Aug. 24 in order to get the measure on the November ballot.

If the measure were to pass in November, it could take a year or more to implement a lottery. And, as TAB previously reported, the revenue generated would not be nearly what gambling proponents claim (visit www.thealabamabaptist.org).

A state lottery also could open up the floodgates for establishing casinos throughout the state. Although the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled time after time against electronic bingo gambling, a vote by Alabama’s citizens could change all of that.

Strange had no comment on the subject.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of Alabama Citizen’s Action Program (ALCAP), believes action on citizens’ parts is vital to remaining a gambling-free state.  “If pastors and church members do not contact their [representatives and senators] now and urge them to oppose all pro-gambling bills during the anticipated special session, we will be facing a lottery referendum this November,” he said.

ALCAP has a documentary available for churches about the ineffectiveness of state-sponsored gambling, titled “Out of Luck,” and Godfrey is available for speaking engagements on the subject. For more information, contact Godfrey at jgodfrey@alcap.com or 205-985-9062.

Seized ‘bingo’ machines ‘stayed’
By The Alabama Baptist

The state of Alabama will keep the more than 800 seized electronic bingo gambling machines it has a little while longer.

The machines were taken from Greenetrack Bingo and Racing in Greene County in a 2010 raid of the complex because they are illegal.

Greenetrack has been fighting to prove the machines are legal and former Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Houston Brown ruled in June that the state had 30 days from June 22 to return the 825 gambling machines.

But Attorney General Luther Strange is appealing the ruling, so he filed a motion with the state Supreme Court on July 7 asking the Court to “stay the Circuit Court’s order so that it continues to have jurisdiction to adjudicate (make a judgment on) the state’s appeal.”

The state’s highest court granted the stay July 20.

While various sources report that Greenetrack’s lawyers are requesting the Supreme Court reconsider its decision, Brown’s ruling remains questionable.

It seems to go against the Supreme Court’s ruling in March that allowed the state to destroy more than 1,200 electronic bingo gambling machines it confiscated from VictoryLand in Macon County.

The Court said in its March 31 decision: “(This decision) is … hopefully the last chapter in the ongoing saga of attempts to defy the clear and repeated holdings of this Court beginning in 2009 that electronic machines like those at issue here are not the ‘bingo’ referenced in local bingo amendments.”

Policing the state’s gambling laws are left up to local law enforcement. Even though electronic bingo gambling is illegal in Greene County — and all of Alabama — Greenetrack continues to offer it.

AUG. 4
Bentley to propose state lottery vote in special session
By Maggie Walsh

Gov. Robert Bentley confirmed July 27 that he will be bringing a statewide lottery proposal to the special session that will begin Aug. 15.

The goal of the session is to find funding for the $85 million Medicaid shortage and Bentley’s announcement comes as no surprise.

“Montgomery doesn’t have all the answers. Let’s hear from the people from this great state on whether the time has come to approve a statewide lottery,” he said.

In his announcement, Bentley promised to present “clean and simple legislation” that does not allow for any other form of gambling.

The problem with Bentley’s promise, however, is the fact that under Alabama law a lottery is defined as any game of chance. And that, according to Birmingham lawyer Eric Johnston, can open the floodgates.  “If we pass a law (legalizing a state lottery), that means the Legislature can have any kind of gambling,” said Johnston, who also represents the Alabama Policy Institute and Alabama Citizen’s Action Program (ALCAP).  “The exact wording of the bills is very deceptive, very subtle,” he said. Blackjack, Roulette, any game of chance technically falls under Alabama’s legal definition of “lottery.”  “We need to understand exactly what we’re voting on. … It’s not just going to the convenience store and buying a ticket. It can be that and then going down the street to the casino,” Johnston said.

The Alabama Baptist reported in the July 28 issue that a state lottery is 1 of 4 possible solutions to the budget shortfall, and if Bentley’s proposal is approved in the special session then lawmakers will have to move fast, completing the session by Aug. 24, to get the measure on the November ballot.

Bentley has previously said he doesn’t believe a lottery is the best way to fund a state government. In a July 28 op-ed for the Montgomery Advertiser, he likens a lottery to an out-of-fashion leisure suit — it was very popular at one time, but now it has “lost its luster.”  Bentley believes all other options have been exhausted, however, making a lottery “the best leisure suit we’ve got.”

According to Bentley, a state lottery is expected to generate $225 million annually.

That total is an estimate based on the historical experience of lotteries in other states similar in size to Alabama, according to Yasamie August, Bentley’s press secretary and National Governor’s Association coordinator.

Three physician groups — the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Alabama Academy of Family Physicians — came together in a statement to applaud the lottery proposal, but expressed concern that no solution was presented to address the short-term issue of the budget shortfall.

If citizens were to vote in favor of a state lottery in November, it could take a year or more to be implemented.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of ALCAP, believes if a lottery is voted in, casinos won’t be far behind.  “I think the ultimate goal is to get casinos. They’ll come back and say, ‘The lottery revenue is not coming in like we thought it would.’ … It’ll be a constant battle from now on,” he said.
“Our budget situation is bad but it’d be worse if we had a lottery.”

Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions Executive Director Rick Lance noted the moral implications of opening the state up to gambling.  “Historically, Alabama Baptists and Southern Baptists have opposed gambling on biblical, moral and ethical grounds. Gambling fosters greed and covetousness, as Proverbs 13:11 states,” he said in a blog post at ricklance.com. “It harms the most disadvantaged people among us, disproportionately to the rest of the population. Gambling leads to bankruptcies, disruption of homes and dissolution of families,” he said.

Even some lottery proponents are against creating a state lottery to fund Medicaid. House of Representatives Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said, “A lottery will do nothing for this year’s Medicaid shortfall, and at best will be nothing more than a Band-Aid for the General Fund.”

Lance and Godfrey encouraged Alabama Baptists to contact state legislators and urge them to stand against the lottery proposal.

Lance said, “In a day of rapidly changing culture Alabama Baptists must be among those … striving to make a positive difference in our day.”

AUG. 11
Editorial: Lottery Not the Answer
By Bob Terry

When Gov. Robert Bentley announced his support for a state-run lottery in Alabama he sounded as if he had found some magical cure for all the ills of the state. He promised a state-run lottery would be a “permanent solution” to the state’s financial problems.  Bentley said taxes would never have to be raised if a lottery were approved because the state-sponsored gambling scheme would “provide funding we can count on for year after year.”

Like other advocates of this get-rich-quick scheme, Bentley’s words are as hollow and misleading as those of all the gambling crowd with which he has now aligned himself.

Look at the experience of Missouri, a state with a lottery for the past 30 years. Originally lottery proceeds went to the state’s General Fund but in 1992 voters specified that all lottery proceeds go to education.

Despite the earmarked funds Missouri State Senator Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, said in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “We still haven’t funded the educational formula as described by statute” for K-12 schools.

Missouri has about 19 percent more population than Alabama. Its per capita income is about 8 percent higher than Alabama’s. Missouri’s per household income is more than 10 percent higher than Alabama. Yet that state with 30 year’s experience with a state-run lottery earmarked for public education cannot even meet minimum statutory requirements to fund one of the state’s most basic and important services.

That is why Missouri leaders are considering asking state voters to kill the state lottery.

Immediate past speaker of the Missouri House John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch “that the lottery is an unstable and inefficient source of funding for public education.” He called publicity for the lottery “horribly misleading” and questioned whether government should be promoting gambling.

“You’re telling people to go pay money in to help fund children’s education and the reality is only about 25 cents of the dollar actually makes it back into education,” Diehl said. “We keep trying to squeeze more money out of the lottery — which often comes from the pockets of those with the lowest incomes — instead of being honest with Missourians that the cost of public education is high, we must address it directly and stop using ‘get rich quick’ gimmicks to make us feel better about it,” Diehl said.  “Lottery,” he added, “at the end of the day is government-run gambling and it’s been inefficient.”

That is why the former speaker of the House in Missouri favors asking the people of his state to scrap the state-run lottery in the Show Me State.

Is there any reason to think Alabama’s experience will be any different? None.

To begin with, Bentley continues the practice of lottery supporters to over promise. In May 2015 state Sen. Del Marsh released a study contending a state-run lottery in Alabama would generate more than $330 million. The flaws in the study were quickly pointed out and those numbers are not talked about any longer.

Bentley reduced the promised income from a state-run lottery by more than $100 million — down to $225 million — but that is still unrealistic when compared to the experience of states like Missouri. To net $225 million, $900 million would have to be gambled away because only about 25 percent of the income coming from lotteries goes to state causes. About 75 percent of the money goes to prizes, administration and advertising. For Alabama to reach the promised amount, every one of Alabama’s 4,858,979 residents would have to gamble away more than $185 annually.

For the current year, the Missouri Lottery Commission has appropriated $278 million to the educational budget for state distribution. That amounts to about $182 from every one of Missouri’s 6,083,672 residents because it takes about $1.1 billion to end up with the $278 million.

Missouri’s per capita income is $26,006 compared to Alabama’s $23,936 or 8 percent lower. If Alabamians gambled away the same percentage of their income as Missouri, we would waste about $421 per capita resulting in a state income of $204 million.
It is unlikely receipts would be that high since 19.2 percent of Alabamians live below the poverty level while the Missouri poverty percentage is 15.6.

Some Alabama legislators have already questioned Bentley’s proposal. House of Representatives Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, called the lottery “a one-shot deal,” adding “a lottery for the General Fund will become, as it has in other states, a victim to legislative shell games. It will become nothing more than a slush fund for legislators.”

That is what happened in Missouri. When voters demanded lottery revenue be earmarked for public education, the legislator responded by shifting other state money away from the education budget. That is why the state continues to fall short of funding K-12 education at the level called for by statute.

It does not matter where income might be designated, it becomes a shell game in the end.

Bentley called his lottery proposal “a permanent solution.” That has not proven true anywhere else and it will not be true in Alabama. He said lottery would provide “funding you can count on year after year.” Again that has not been true anywhere else and it will not be true in Alabama.

Bentley said taxes would never have to be raised. That is untrue and is an attempt to appeal to the basic emotions of voters. As Diehl said, it is time to be honest with voters about the cost of public education and basic governmental services.

The latest state-sponsored lottery proposal is just another shell game designed to distract the people of Alabama from the serious status of the state’s financial condition. Alabama deserves better than that from Bentley and from our elected state legislative leaders.

AUG. 11
“Honest argument” needed on lottery
By The Alabama Baptist

Alabama Policy Institute (API) recently released a video, “Voodoo Budgeting,” showing Gov. Robert Bentley calling for a special session to push through lottery legislation where he assures the people of Alabama that a lottery would be a “permanent solution” for the state’s budget shortfalls.

API, a nonprofit research and educational institute, said in an Aug. 3 email that Bentley’s claims about the lottery being something Alabamian’s can “count on year after year” is “simply not true, as evidenced by the experiences of other states with lotteries.” API will continue to “do our part to keep Alabama’s politicians honest,” the email said. “The people of Alabama deserve nothing less.”

Click here to view the video.

AUG. 18
Medical needs of poor require solutions, Alabama pediatrician says
By Marsha Raulerson, MD, FAAP

Shame on us. The lottery is no way to finance the Medicaid program that provides health insurance for more than a million Alabamians — with more than half of them children. Our legislators adjourned last spring after approving a budget that shortchanged the Medicaid program by $85 million dollars along with a loss of approximately $160 million additional Federal matching dollars. Cuts to the program started Aug. 1 with our pediatricians and family practice doctors the first to bear the brunt of the inadequate budget. Office visits now pay about 60 percent of the Medicare rate. The payment for vaccines dropped a whopping 60 percent, now paying only $8 per vaccine which is 31 percent of the Medicare rate. By the way, who thinks it is easier to give an adult a shot than it is to give one to a child with anxious parents?

The doctors who care for more than 550,000 of our children have had to cut staff, cut their hours, curtail efforts to attract more primary care doctors to our state and give up the vaccine program that is vital to public health. Some are planning to close their practice and move to another state. Hit especially hard are physicians serving families in our rural areas where it is not unusual for 70 percent of their patients to have Medicaid insurance. They can no longer afford to keep their doors open.

Who in our state will suffer from this loss of health care? Everyone. Both of our children’s hospitals depend on Medicaid funding as do all of our rural hospitals. Even when you have the very best private insurance, if the closest hospital is 90 miles away will you survive an acute serious illness or accidental injury? If a family member has a premature baby, will the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) have adequate funding for the state-of-the art care we have now? If we lose primary care doctors to other states who will be there for you? Most of us have benefited from Medicaid without realizing it — an elderly family member in a nursing home; a family member with a premature newborn graduate of the NICU; a cousin who received maternity care with Medicaid; an employee who couldn’t afford family insurance whose children have Medicaid; children of our hairdresser, housekeeper, dry cleaner, lawn service provider; the waitress in our favorite restaurant; the lady in our Sunday School class whose grandchildren have Medicaid insurance — even family members of our elected officials.

Alabama already had a bare-bones Medicaid program that provides vital services to our seniors in nursing homes, more than half of our pregnant women, the disabled and a majority of our children. We had made steady progress in reducing the number of uninsured children to about 4 percent — the result has been a decrease in the child death rate, a very low rate of unvaccinated children at risk for serious diseases, better birth outcomes with fewer low-birth weight babies, a decrease in teen pregnancy and a drop in hospitalizations for children.

My Medicaid patients include a young woman who was valedictorian of her class and headed to Auburn University with a full scholarship to become a pediatrician; two adorable little boys with Autism whose mom had to quit her job to care for them; a high school student with sickle cell disease who has suffered serious complications but is doing well and wants to own his own business; a toddler born with cancer who is disease-free after intensive care at USA Women’s and Children’s Hospital; two precious sisters whose mom is in prison now living with grandparents; a child born to a family with private insurance who had a major illness requiring intermittent intensive care for two years with that care paid for by Medicaid; a college graduate and former homecoming queen who had major surgery as a newborn and received care through Medicaid until recently (she now has a good job and private insurance); twins whose mom works full time at a child care center but has no insurance; a child with cerebral palsy cared for by his great-grandmother; a teenager with Type 2 diabetes who has worked hard to successfully control her weight; three children who live with their grandmother after their mom died in a car crash on her way to work; a bright young boy who weighed 2 pounds at birth, spent 6 months in the NICU — paid for by Medicaid — but whose mom has finished college and now works for the Department of Human Resources and has private insurance; and a 13-year-old in foster care who suffered severe child abuse.

So why the shortfall? Many of our elected officials ran campaigns on “no new taxes.” They are concerned about being re-elected if they vote for any tax. It is time for Christians in Alabama to let the legislators know that they will still vote for them if a new tax funds health care. A lottery is not the lesser of two evils — increased gambling won’t give our state a healthier future for our children.

Gov. Robert Bentley and the Alabama Legislature should use this special session to look at other alternative revenue raising opportunities to ensure stable Medicaid funding including new taxes. After all you have only one chance to get it right — you have only one childhood.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Dr. Marsha Raulerson has practiced pediatrics in Brewton since 1981. She has been president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Voices for Alabama’s Children. She is a board member for the Children’s First Foundation.

AUG. 18
Alabama Baptist leaders speak out
By The Alabama Baptist

Alabama Baptist leaders have gone on record expressing opposition to the latest attempt to legalize a lottery in the state.

The opposition was made through a joint statement released Aug. 12 by Alabama Baptist State Convention President Travis Coleman Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church, Prattville, and State Missionary Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM). “Alabama Baptists have gone on record of being opposed to gambling of any form and what it does to the poorest of the poor,” Lance told SBOM trustees meeting Aug. 12.

The statement says in part: “Alabama Baptists and Southern Baptists have opposed gambling on biblical, moral and ethical grounds. Gambling fosters greed and covetousness, as Proverbs 13:11 states. Furthermore, gambling has proven to be very addictive, creating all kinds of personal and societal issues.
“With the acceptance of gambling as a way of supporting government, society will inevitably and increasingly deal with the personal difficulties of people caught in the spiderweb of destruction from involvement in such heinous practices. The lottery has been well called ‘the crack cocaine of legalized gambling.’
“We respectfully call upon Alabama Baptists to contact their state legislators and let them know of our disagreement with any lottery proposal.”

To read more of the statement, visit www.ricklance.com.

AUG. 18
Special session addresses 2 lottery proposals
By Maggie Walsh

Legislators convened the special session Aug. 15 that will determine whether or not a lottery will be on the Nov. 8 ballot for Alabamians to vote on.

To find funding for the $85 million Medicaid budget shortage, Gov. Robert Bentley called the special session to propose a state lottery — but his isn’t the only proposal. Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, announced Aug. 9 that he plans to bring a second lottery proposal to the special session.

Both proposals are constitutional amendments that would create a statewide and Powerball lottery as well as a commission to oversee and regulate the gambling system.

But McClendon’s proposal expands the lottery by allowing electronic lottery terminals — machines resembling slot machines but considered Class II gambling like electronic bingo — at VictoryLand, Greenetrack, the Birmingham Race Course and the Mobile Greyhound Park. It also would allow the state to negotiate a gambling compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

McClendon claims his proposal would raise about $427 million, sending $327 million to the General Fund and $100 million toward education. His plan also would create a bond issue paid off with gambling revenue. The bonds would be used to pay the Medicaid shortfall. Bentley’s proposal — said to generate $225 million — would send all proceeds to the General Fund.

Bentley and McClendon both promised their proposals do not open the door for casino gambling in the state, but the broad definition of “lottery” as any game of chance makes those promises unlikely to be kept.

Birmingham Race Course officials, for example, have already made clear their intentions to attempt to bring horse racing back to Birmingham. The course could restore live horse racing using revenue from video lottery terminals which could be made legal under McClendon’s proposal, the Birmingham Business Journal reported.

For the lottery to make it on the November ballot for voters, one of the proposed amendments would have to be approved by three-fifths of legislators by Aug. 24.

Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City; Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise; and Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, are among those who have publicly opposed the creation of a lottery, each calling it a “Band-Aid” for the wounded General Fund.

To contact your representative or senator, click here.

AUG. 25
Lottery, BP settlement prompt much debate
By Maggie Walsh

At press time in the special session that began Aug. 15 to address the $85 million Medicaid shortfall, one lottery bill had died and the other was still being debated. Legislators planned to pick back up with discussions in the Senate on Aug. 23.

For a proposal to make it on the Nov. 8 ballot for Alabamians to vote on, it would have to pass through both the House of Representatives and the Senate by Aug. 24.

Sen. Jim McClendon’s, R-Springville, lottery bill was just one vote shy of passing, with 20 in favor and 11 against. Four senators abstained from voting.

If McClendon’s bill, which Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, called a “train wreck,” had passed it would have allowed the placement of electronic gambling machines in VictoryLand in Shorter, Greenetrack in Eutaw, the Birmingham Race Course, the Mobile Greyhound Park and in Houston and Lowndes counties. It also would have allowed a gambling compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Gov. Robert Bentley’s lottery bill (SB 3), which also is sponsored by McClendon, would create a statewide and Powerball lottery as well as a commission to oversee and regulate the gambling system.

At press time, numerous amendments to Bentley’s bill were being discussed.

In a statement issued Aug. 16, Attorney General Luther Strange said he is “personally opposed” to a lottery, but “if [Bentley’s bill] passes as proposed and is followed by responsible enabling legislation, my legal team believes it will create a limited lottery without the kinds of loopholes that will lead to casino gambling.”
BP bill moved forward

On the other side of the Legislature, the House of Representatives passed HB 36 on Aug. 17 which allocates part of the BP oil spill settlement money toward Medicaid. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, directs $448 million to state debt, $191 million to roads in Baldwin and Mobile counties and $70 million to Medicaid.

The bill was approved as is in the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee on Aug. 19 and was expected to prompt much debate on the Senate floor Aug. 23. If approved by the Senate as is, it would largely fill the Medicaid deficit, leaving legislators with a $15 million hole to fill.

AUG. 25
Latest ruling against illegal gambling ‘significant victory’
By Maggie Walsh

The gambling machines and more than $191,000 in cash seized from Frontier Bingo in Knoxville during a raid in 2014 will remain with the state, Greene County Circuit Court ruled Aug. 15.  The confiscated cash will be transferred to the state’s General Fund and the illegal electronic bingo machines will be destroyed.

The court’s siding with the State of Alabama is “a significant victory for the rule of law in Greene County,” Attorney General Luther Strange said. “Electronic bingo is unlawful within the State of Alabama and today’s ruling is further evidence that the law is being enforced.”

In other news, a miscommunication between Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford and Macon County Racing Commission Chairman Luther Curry prompted reports of a Sept. 6 opening for VictoryLand in Shorter. A firm opening date for the casino has not been set, however, according to VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor.

Although the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against VictoryLand in its March 31 ruling concerning the legality of the casino’s electronic bingo machines, McGregor has continued to move forward with plans to get the gambling facility’s doors reopened. For the full story, click here.

Sponsor calls Alabama lottery bill ‘dead’
By Maggie Walsh

The lottery bill for the 2016 special session is dead,” announced the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, on Aug. 26 after the Senate voted against agreeing with the House changes to the bill (SB3).

The House changes included defining the lottery as paper tickets, an attempt to prohibit electronic lottery terminals, and earmarking 1 percent of lottery proceeds to rural fire departments.

It was the narrowed definition of the lottery that drove the 7–23 vote that signaled the demise of the bill, several legislators said.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, celebrated the defeat of the gambling legislation.  “As we suspected, when the House amended the bill to exclude casinos that is not what the pro-gambling people wanted,” Godfrey said. “There were different motives for voting ‘no,’ but at this point we are celebrating the defeat of pro-gambling legislation in Alabama.”

The lottery bill’s ride through the special session was riddled with unexpected twists and turns, including confusion over when the deadline was to get the bill on the Nov. 8 ballot. McClendon and Sen. President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, both claimed Aug. 24 — the previously announced deadline for the November general election ballot — that they had until Aug. 26 to get the measure on the November ballot, causing mass confusion as conflicting opinions surfaced. All speculation, however, became irrelevant once the Senate voted down the changes to the bill.

In a roller coaster of votes and motions just before midnight Aug. 25, the bill fell short of passing by two votes in the House. The victory was short-lived by lottery opponents, however, as supporters won a reconsideration motion as well as a second vote, pushing the lottery bill through. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Alan Harper, R-Northport, made the motion to reconsider.

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said after the two votes, “I’ve been here a while, but you are thoroughly confusing me now.”

And the rest of Alabama was right there with him.

On the second vote three representatives made the difference for the 64–35 vote — Darrio Melton, D-Selma; Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville; and David Sessions, R-Grand Bay.

That sent the bill back to the Senate — where it had already passed Aug. 19 — for either a concurrence, or agreement, vote or a conference committee since some changes had been made to the bill in the House. Marsh said there was not enough time left in the special session to start over and get a lottery bill passed.

Both the House and Senate voted to adjourn until Sept. 6, at which point there will be three days left in the special session to find a solution to the $85 million Medicaid shortfall.

When they reconvene Sept. 6, the Senate is expected to address the BP bill (HB36) that the House passed earlier in the session. This bill would issue bonds estimated at about $639 million and apply $850 million in BP payments to pay off the bonds. The bond proceeds would partly be used to pay off state debt, which would free up about $70 million for Medicaid, according to al.com.

The recurring chant in the State House on Aug. 26 from legislators was “I’ve never seen anything like this,” referring to the wild ride of SB3.

If passed, SB3 would have established a statewide and Powerball lottery and directed 10 percent of lottery proceeds to education after the $100 million, which was allotted for Medicaid. Gov. Robert Bentley claimed the lottery would generate $225 million in revenue, an estimate that Andrew A. Yerbey, senior policy counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, called “unreliable and untruthful.”

Godfrey urged Alabamians to contact their legislators to urge them to vote in favor of HB36 “so that gambling will not be needed to solve the Medicaid problem in our state,” he said.

SEPT. 15
Short-term fix for Medicaid shortfall found in BP settlement; not solution, senator says
By Maggie Walsh

The day before the special session ended Sept. 7, lawmakers passed a plan to buoy Medicaid with BP oil settlement money.

After two proposed lottery bills failed to offer a solution, lawmakers came together Sept. 6 to focus on BP oil settlement money, using most of the $1 billion that BP is set to pay over 18 years for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

In 2018 the bill (HB 36) will split the settlement between Medicaid, debt repayment and road projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties. For the immediate $85 million need of the 2017 Medicaid budget, Gov. Robert Bentley has allocated $70 million — $50 million from the first BP payment and $20 million from the General Fund. The additional $15 million will be given directly to Medicaid from the BP settlement, according to Birmingham Business Journal.

The bill issues bonds and then uses the BP payments to pay off the bonds. It also creates the Alabama Economic Settlement Authority to issue the bonds estimated at $640 million. The money will be divided as follows:

  • $120 million to Medicaid, which is split $15 million in 2017 and $105 million in 2018.
  • $162 million to repay the General Fund Rainy Day Account. That money was used seven years ago to support the budget and must be repaid by 2020.
  • $238 million to the Alabama Trust Fund, also to replenish funds transferred a few years ago to support the budget.
  • Remaining $120 million would go to Mobile and Baldwin counties for specific road projects.

The bill also includes an amendment from Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, which earmarks at least $4 million in Medicaid funds for outpatient dialysis and reinstates Medicaid reimbursements to doctors back to what they were before Aug. 1.

Lawmakers approved the bill 22–8 in the Senate and 87–9 in the House. Bentley signed the bill into law Sept. 8.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said, “We have not solved the problem on Medicaid. … This is just something we’ve got to continue to work on.”

SEPT. 22
Editorial: Mocking the Alabama Supreme Court
By Bob Terry

If there was ever a business that thumbed its nose at the unanimous rulings of the Alabama Supreme Court it is Milton McGregor’s VictoryLand gambling hall in Macon County. Unfortunately, McGregor is likely to get away with his contemptuous actions because of a shameless executive order by Gov. Robert Bentley.

In March the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against McGregor and VictoryLand in a case involving state custody of more than 1,600 electronic bingo gambling machines seized in an earlier raid. The Court wrote, “This decision is the latest and hopefully the last chapter in the more than six years’ worth of attempts (by McGregor and VictoryLand) to defy the Alabama Constitution’s ban on lotteries. “It is the latest and hopefully the last chapter in the ongoing saga of attempts to defy the clear and repeated holdings of this Court beginning in 2009 that electronic machines like those at issue here are not the ‘bingo’ reference in local bingo amendments. “All that is left is for the law of this State to be enforced,” the Court declared.

In an earlier case the state Supreme Court was as clear as possible about electronic gambling machines and bingo. The Court found, “The game traditionally known as bingo is not one played by or with an electronic or computerized machine, terminal or server but is one played outside of machines and electronic circuitry.”

Less than a week after the Court issued its ruling McGregor showed his disdain for the Court and Alabama law when he announced he would reopen VictoryLand by late summer. On Sept. 13 he made good on his promise, personally greeting gamblers who came to play the 500 slot machine-like terminals with names such as Bustin’ Vegas, Wild Billy Jackpot and Paydirt.

To no one’s surprise Macon County Sheriff Andre Brunson seems to be protecting McGregor. Brunson, whom McGregor called “the only person on this earth that can establish the rules and regulations of electronic bingo in Macon County,” earlier said, “Any person seeking to interfere with the operation of bingo games in this county will have a legal issue to deal with from my office,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser.

Apparently the Macon County sheriff, who has approved McGregor’s new video gambling machines, can thumb his nose at the Alabama Supreme Court too.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange issued a statement following McGregor’s reopening. Strange restated his long-held position that electronic bingo is illegal in the state. A year ago Strange might have acted to stop this illegal gambling. Now his hands are tied.

When he and Bentley were first elected, Bentley authorized Strange to lead state efforts to stop illegal gambling. Strange responded with methodical legal actions that resulted in clear legal decisions outlawing electronic gambling.

Based on those decisions he acted to close down VictoryLand, Greenetrack in Greene County and other illegal gambling sites.

Just as victory against illegal gambling seemed within reach, Bentley issued an executive order that resulted in mid-September’s disgraceful scene of McGregor flaunting the unanimous decisions by the Alabama Supreme Court. Likely others will follow McGregor’s lead.

In November 2015, Bentley unexpectedly removed Strange from leading state efforts against illegal gambling. Bentley said state law enforcement would only respond to “requests of local officials.” With the stroke of a pen, Bentley gave victory to the gamblers.

In some counties in Alabama there has been an elaborate legal dance going on for years. County officials — sheriffs, district attorneys and some judges — side with the gamblers. They purposely impede state efforts to close down gambling sites — even brag in print about the obstacles they create.

Then it is the attorney general’s turn. He works around the impediments, often appealing local rulings all the way to the state Supreme Court. There he wins and takes action. Then the dance starts over again.

This complicated dance is well known. That is what makes Bentley’s ruling so shameful. It has all the trappings of a deliberate decision to side with the illegal gambling crowd. No one would have ever thought this former Baptist deacon and Bible teacher would make such a decision but he did.

Now Strange can only say, “If local officials are … facilitating illegal activity then I expect the governor to take action. I stand ready to work with the governor and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to stop illegal gambling and other crimes.”
This is exactly the situation we predicted almost a year ago when Bentley issued his unfortunate directive.

The governor has once again found himself in a dilemma of his own making. He must either retract his 2015 directive removing Strange from enforcing the state’s illegal gambling laws or he must take responsibility for allowing the unanimous decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court to be mocked by the self-serving interests of McGregor and company.

This issue is bigger than illegal gambling. It strikes at the core of a lawful society. If McGregor and other illegal gamblers are allowed to mock the Alabama Supreme Court and issues of settled law, what will happen next? Where will this downward spiral end?

Even if Bentley favors illegal gambling he must act in the interest of supporting a law-abiding society.

Surely the governor of the state of Alabama will not become a part of publicly flaunting the decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court. Surely Bentley is a better man than that.

As the Supreme Court said, “All that is left is for the law of the State to be enforced.”

OCT. 13
Gov. Bentley must take action against illegal gambling, AG Strange says
By Maggie Walsh

When he signed his name on Executive Order 24 on Oct. 3, Gov. Robert Bentley created the Alabama Advisory Council on Gaming. He also prompted some questions.

According to the executive order, the council will “assess the current state and local laws on gambling, as well as the taxes generated therefrom, and will evaluate the best practices in other states, including the tax revenue structures and the enabling and implementing regulations and laws.” It will then present its findings and recommendations to Bentley, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon by Jan. 1, 2017.

But what effect will the council have on the current illegal bingo gambling going on at VictoryLand in Macon County and at White Hall and Southern Star casinos in Lowndes County?

Attorney General Luther Strange — who Bentley authorized to enforce gambling laws soon after Bentley came into office in 2011, but since shifted the responsibility to local law enforcement in November 2015 — said that if local law enforcement isn’t enforcing the law then Bentley must step in.  “I don’t know what the governor’s Advisory Council on Gaming will conclude, whether the Legislature will adopt its recommendations or whether the people of Alabama will approve whatever comes out of the Legislature,” Strange said. “But I do know the electronic bingo that is going on today in defiance of state law is illegal. That is absolutely clear.
“The answer to lawlessness is not a new committee. It’s action.”

Yasamie August, Bentley’s press secretary, said the governor formed the advisory council “because the ongoing issue of gaming needs to be solved once and for all in Alabama.”

But as far as the Alabama Supreme Court is concerned, electronic bingo gambling has already been solved — it was ruled “illegal” in March.

And while Strange has the authority to investigate the illegal gambling going on, “we’re beyond investigation,” said Mike Lewis, Strange’s communications director.

In a joint letter in September, Strange and Bentley reminded local law enforcement in all counties with constitutional amendments related to bingo gambling of the law. But in Macon and Lowndes counties, the laws are not being enforced (see “Illegal gambling allowed to operate in Alabama” in the Oct. 6 issue).

Strange said, “Through [the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency], the governor commands virtually the entire apparatus of statewide law enforcement. When local officials refuse to enforce the law, when they defy not only the Alabama Supreme Court but his own executive order, he must act.”

NOV. 10
Gov. Bentley’s gambling advisory group evaluating current laws, potential revenue
By The Alabama Baptist

Gov. Robert Bentley announced the appointments for his Alabama Advisory Council on Gaming, which has until Jan. 1, 2017, to present its findings and recommendations to lawmakers for consideration. The council will focus on evaluating state and local gambling laws, tax revenues from existing illegal gambling operations in the state and tax revenue structures from gambling in other states.

Although studies have concluded that gambling enterprises such as casinos and lotteries do not provide a long-term boost to state economies, Bentley said he hopes the council will end the long-debated issue by figuring out “a way for the people to have a say in its resolution.”

The council had its first meeting Nov. 3, with the next scheduled for Nov. 17. At its first meeting, the council voted to make all its meetings open to the public.

Bentley also said it was “safe to say” there will be no raids on VictoryLand in Macon County or GreeneTrack in Greene County in the meantime, where illegal bingo gambling is going on currently, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. For more information, visit www.thealabamabaptist.org.