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Published in Print: October 6, 1999, as Debate Grows As Alabama Lottery Vote Nears

Debate Grows As Alabama Lottery Vote Nears

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As an Oct. 12 vote nears on whether to create a state lottery for Alabama, both advocates and foes of the plan are looking no farther than neighboring Georgia to make their case.

Like Georgia lottery backers, supporters of the Alabama plan say it will bring in more money to spend exclusively on college scholarships, pre-kindergarten programs, and technology in schools. And opponents argue that it will establish a program paid for disproportionately by poor people, while encouraging problem gambling.

Two recent polls show Alabama's pro-lottery camp ahead by a comfortable margin, with roughly 60 percent of respondents indicating support. But the various grassroots groups that have organized to combat the plan, which is backed by Gov. Donald Siegelman, say they will fight it to the finish.

Media Campaign

"We believe a lottery will wind up hurting the very people it's intended to help--Alabama's children," said John Hill, a senior policy analyst at the Alabama Family Alliance, one of the groups lobbying against the plan. "We already know there are teenagers in Alabama who have gambling problems. Our question is, how many young people have to suffer for the sake of scholarships?"

If approved, the Alabama lottery is expected to raise a minimum of $150 million every year. Like Georgia's lottery, the profits would be divided among three new programs.

An estimated $54 million would be devoted to a statewide prekindergarten program, and $51 million would go to upgrade technology in schools. About $43.7 million set aside for a scholarship program named after Georgia's HOPE scholarships would benefit students with a B average or better who attended private or public colleges in Alabama.

Georgia's lottery was also expected to bring in $150 million in its first year in 1993, and ultimately yielded more than $300 million.

In Alabama, the HOPE scholarships would cover the full cost of tuition and fees at any state institution, or provide $1,500 toward tuition at any private college or university in the state.

Mr. Siegelman, a first-term Democrat, has campaigned heavily for the plan in recent weeks. His efforts include the creation of a nonprofit foundation to promote and raise money for the initiative.

The foundation is airing advertisements highlighting how Alabama residents already spend money on the lotteries in Georgia and Florida, and urging voters to keep their money in the state.

Lottery organizers in neighboring states estimate that Alabama residents have spent over $1 billion on Georgia and Florida lotteries in the past decade, said Rick Dent, a spokesman for the Alabama Education Lottery Foundation.

"We're spending our money to educate Georgia's children, and we want that money to stay here," Mr. Dent said.

"There is no plan B," he added. "If this fails, there will be no college scholarships, no pre-K, and no technology."

Lottery advocates have made similar arguments in South Carolina, where voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to approve another Georgia-style lottery.

Not a Panacea

As in other states, opponents of the Alabama plan say it is immoral to pay for scholarships with money that often comes from poor families who spend more than they can afford on lottery tickets.

They cite a 1994 analysis in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that reported that Georgia lottery sales were highest in neighborhoods with the highest proportions of minority residents and the lowest family incomes, as well as similar findings in other lottery states.

The Alabama Citizen Action Program, another anti-lottery group, has asked teenagers to sign pledges stating that they wouldn't accept scholarship money that comes from lottery proceeds.

If the program passes and proves as profitable as analysts predict, lottery revenues would still make up only a small fraction of a state education budget that totals $2.9 billion in the current fiscal year.

"There's a misconception about lotteries that they're going to take care of education," said Gale Gaines, the director of legislative services for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit research and advisory organization in Atlanta. "But it's such a small percentage that if it's not targeted, you don't see the effect at all."

Opportunity Seen

But in a state where lawmakers appear to lack the political will to raise taxes, even a small amount money for targeted programs could make important changes, advocates say.

A $51 million appropriation for school technology would seem monumental in a state that now spends only $3.5 million a year for that purpose.

The lottery vote is "more than likely the only opportunity we will ever have to get funding for preschool programs," said Paul Hubbert, the executive secretary for the Alabama Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. "There is no sentiment in our state to raise additional taxes."

Vol. 19, Issue 6, Pages 22,25

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