Alabama is one of only a handful of states that does not currently have a state-sponsored lottery. However, the question of whether Alabama has ever had a lottery has a more complicated answer. While Alabama has never had a traditional state-run lottery, there have been certain lottery-like games and proposals throughout the state’s history. Understanding the nuances of Alabama’s relationship with lotteries requires an examination of key events, legislation, and public opinion over the decades. This article will explore the near misses, unsuccessful campaigns, and context surrounding the debate over instituting a lottery in a state known for its conservative values and religious convictions against gambling.
Early Lottery Proposals And Attempts
While Alabama has never officially run a public state lottery, there were some early attempts to establish lottery games in the young state. In 1820-21, the question of instituting a lottery to benefit the newly-founded University of Alabama was discussed among early state leaders. The plan called for a $200,000 public lottery to help finance and endow the new university. However, these proposals did not end up going anywhere, and a lottery was not held to benefit the University of Alabama during this era.
Over the ensuing decades, there were occasional attempts and proposals to run lotteries, raffles, and other games of chance, but most were shut down for being unauthorized gambling. In 1875, a judge ruled that a lottery run for the purpose of raising money to build a new jail was unconstitutional. For the most part, early attempts to establish official lotteries in Alabama were sporadic, small-scale, and ultimately unsuccessful due to state bans on unauthorized gambling. Alabama’s antebellum constitution and laws during the 1800s and early 1900s made it difficult for any large-scale lottery plans to gain traction.
New Deal Era Racetrack Lottery
The closest thing Alabama had to an operational lottery in the pre-modern era was during the 1930s at the Birmingham and Greene County race tracks. Horse racing had been legalized in Alabama in the early 1900s, and by the 1930s organized racing with parimutuel betting was taking place at tracks in Birmingham and Greene County. During the New Deal era, Alabama racing operators set up a special “numbered ball” lottery system to boost track revenues and handle overflow crowds.
Under this lottery system, players could buy tickets with randomly assigned numbers. On race days, a numbered ball corresponding to one of the sold tickets was drawn, and the holder of the randomly-selected numbered ticket would win a cash prize. This lottery game, while not a full-fledged statewide lottery, did offer a form of legal lottery play for bettors at Alabama racetracks in the 1930s. Revenues from lottery ticket sales were split between the track operators and the winners. The lottery balls added an extra element of cash prizes and gambling excitement to race days.
This racetrack lottery game was a uniquely Alabama approach during the Depression era. However, the racing and lottery system ran into challenges in the late 1930s after a change in state administration. Concerns about gambling and malpractice led to the shut down of Greene County Race Track in 1939. Birmingham Race Course continued operating into the 1940s before it too was shuttered under political pressures. With the closure of the tracks, the Alabama racetrack lottery games came to an end as well. But the numbered ball lotteries set an early precedent for lottery gaming tied to legalized racing in the state.
1960s-1980s Lottery Proposals Shut Down
After a long absence of any lottery activity, proposals to establish a Alabama state lottery system began to emerge again in the latter 20th century. Beginning in the 1960s, lottery proponents periodically tried to introduce bills and constitutional amendments to allow a public state lottery, but these attempts were routinely defeated.
Powerful figures including longtime attorney general Bill Baxley and Gov. George Wallace came out firmly against instituting a lottery in Alabama during this era. Much of the opposition was grounded in moral objections and social concerns about enabling excessive gambling habits and preying on the poor. Governor Fob James in particular condemned lotteries for having what he saw as a corrupting influence on society and politics. The conservative establishment argued that legalizing a lottery went against Alabama values.
Despite this resistance, Democratic State Senator Douglas Ghee of Anniston launched an ambitious campaign in 1982 to amend the state constitution to create an education lottery. Sen. Ghee proposed using lottery revenues to fund scholarships, classroom materials, and teacher retirement benefits. He touted economic benefits and estimated the lottery could generate over $150 million annually for education funding. However, after passing the amendment out of committee, it was defeated on the Senate floor in 1983. Opposition remained broad from religious groups and both Republicans and Democrats in the legislature. This defeat essentially sealed the anti-lottery stance in Alabama for the rest of the 1980s.
While lottery proposals occasionally cropped up, they failed to gain any momentum due to concerns over social impacts, unsuccessful lottery experiences in nearby states, and the influence of Baptist and evangelical church leaders against legalized gambling. With neighboring Georgia’s lottery already up and running, proponents struggled to establish a urgent need or benefit that would sway resistant lawmakers.
1999 Governor’s Gambling Compact and Proposed Education Lottery
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, attitudes toward a state-run lottery in Alabama showed signs of shifting. In 1999, Governor Don Siegelman negotiated a compact with Native American tribal nations that would have allowed new forms of gambling in exchange for tribal revenue payments to the state. This compact paved the way for a major education lottery proposal.
Governor Siegelman vigorously campaigned for a constitutional amendment in 1999 to establish a lottery to fund education, promising hundreds of millions in revenue. His proposal called for using lottery proceeds to provide college scholarships, subsidize school technology costs, and finance a new pre-kindergarten program. The state’s low educational rankings at the time strengthened the case that a lottery could be a benefit.
Siegelman and others painted the lottery as a moral good that would help Alabama children rather than a regressive tax. The education argument helped counter arguments that lotteries preyed on the poor and constituted an immoral “sucker’s bet.” A statewide vote was scheduled with optimism that the education angle could push the lottery amendment across the finish line.
However, anti-lottery forces including conservative and religious groups organized to oppose the 1999 amendment, arguing it would open the floodgates to casino-style gambling. The central theme used against the lottery was that it was a corrupting influence that went against Alabama values. In a defeat for Siegelman, the lottery amendment failed at the polls in 1999 by a 54% to 46% vote. This stinging loss revealed that Alabama was still not ready socially to embrace state-sponsored lottery gaming. Deep reservations remained among crucial demographics.
21st Century “All or Nothing” Lottery Game Authorized For Veterans
After the 1999 defeat, major lottery proposals waned in Alabama for several years. However, in 2003 the Alabama legislature did approve a bill allowing for a new lottery game with proceeds benefiting veterans programs in the state. Under Republican Governor Bob Riley, the legislature passed the “All or Nothing Lottery Game.”
This game was run by the Alabama Veterans and Relief Funds Board and offered players a chance to choose 20 numbers and win $2,500 if they matched all 20 numbers drawn twice a week. There were smaller prizes for matching some numbers. While not a full-scale lottery, Alabama’s authorization of the limited “All or Nothing Lottery Game” marked a shift. Proceeds from ticket purchases did provide dedicated funding for state veterans homes starting in 2004. To overcome resistance, the bill specifically allocated 80% of funds to benefit in-state veterans programs before any administrative expenses.
The introduction of this lottery game was narrowly targeted at an unobjectionable cause helping veterans. But the successful institution even of a small-scale lottery suggested openness to future lottery expansion was growing if similarly restricted and controlled.
Growth of Tribal Casinos and Casino Lobbying Creates Momentum
Another key factor that laid the groundwork for an eventual state lottery was the gradual spread of casino-style gambling and electronic bingo halls on tribal lands in Alabama in the 1990s and 2000s. Though these casinos faced legal challenges and opposition, their growing customer base and political influence nurtured acceptance of legalized gambling. Supporters publicized the job creation and economic activity generated by the tribal gaming venues.
Having witnessed customers eagerly flocking to gamble at the tribal electronic bingo sites despite anti-gambling attitudes, political leaders realized Alabamians were willing to spend significant money gaming. As bordering states continued benefitting from education lotteries while money leaked out of Alabama to neighboring lottery games, the economic argument gained potency. These realities steadily shifted the debate and eroded some of the old resistance.
Additionally, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians tribal casino operators boosted the pro-lottery cause by significantly ramping up lobbying and advocacy efforts in the 2010s. The tribe’s casino revenue enabled them to bankroll campaigns to sway public opinion and apply pressure to lawmakers against the anti-lottery Baptists’ influence. Groups like the Alabama Citizens Action Program worked with tribal leadership to promote lottery legalization as an economic and education funding imperative. Gradually, these efforts bore fruit in persuading more Alabama politicians to back lottery legislation.
Vote on Gov. Robert Bentley’s Proposed Lottery in 2016
By 2016, a confluence of factors had moved a state lottery from a political impossibility to a plausible initiative with growing support. Republican Governor Robert Bentley proposed a state constitutional amendment to allow an Alabama education lottery in 2016. The plan would distribute proceeds to the state’s Education Trust Fund and also provide matching funds for academic scholarships.
Governor Bentley along with Democratic U.S. Representative Terri Sewell pushed the lottery measure as essential to injecting new resources into Alabama’s perpetually struggling education system. Proponents also argued that a lottery would recapture money flowing out of state to lotteries in Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi. This appeal to state pride and keeping tax dollars in Alabama gained traction.
During the 2016 legislative debates over enabling an Alabama lottery referendum, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians played a pivotal role. The tribe engaged in extensive lobbying and advertising. Their casino profits enabled them to donate heavily to key legislators and mount a forceful public influence campaign. This tribal advocacy was credited with helping secure the close votes needed to get the lottery referendum on the 2016 ballot.
However, Alabama voters once again rejected the lottery measure at the polls. Despite relatively strong support among Democrats, typically lottery-averse Republicans were split which proved fatal. Outcome differences between liberals and conservatives, urban and rural areas highlighted Alabama’s lingering divisions on the lottery as a moral issue. The 2016 defeat maintained the state’s status as an outlier nationally without a lottery, but the relatively close margin showed public opposition was diminishing.
2021 Study Group Weighs New Lottery Proposal
Despite the failure of the 2016 referendum, persistence from lottery advocates kept the possibility alive of another attempt. In 2021, a lottery study group authorized by the legislature took up an extensive review of potential lottery implementation models and impacts on the state. This 19-member committee represented a range of perspectives, including Baptist leaders and Republican lawmakers who had opposed prior lottery proposals.
The study group weighed options on game structures, advertising rules, age limits, and how to allocate revenue. Findings estimated a lottery could generate over $390 million in net revenue that could be directed to needs like rural healthcare and college scholarships. However, concerns were raised over adequately restricting advertisements so as not to overly encourage gambling. The group also explored safeguards like age restrictions on lottery play to prevent issues like underage gambling.
Though some members remained opposed to any sort of lottery gaming, the report marked progress. There was recognition on all sides that revenues currently being lost to bordering states could benefit Alabama causes if a lottery were structured and regulated properly. The study group’s hearings, findings, and discussions helped set the framework for renewed legislative debate on a lottery bill in 2022.
Lottery Bill Approved in 2022 Legislative Session for Public Referendum
Drawing on the study group’s research and insights from past failed efforts, Republican state senator Jim McClendon introduced a new lottery proposal in the 2022 regular legislative session. McClendon’s legislation sought to establish a lottery structured and regulated to ensure fiscal responsibility and limit problem gambling concerns. This represented leadership from within the GOP to spearhead a lottery plan and give it viability in the Republican-controlled legislature.
Significantly, this lottery bill restricted advertising compared to other states and allocated at least 50% of proceeds to Medicaid. This linkage to increased healthcare funding, along with scholarships and rural economic development initiatives, broadened the lottery’s appeal beyond only education purposes. McClendon and other backers emphasized that properly run, a lottery could generate over $700 million annually for crucial state programs without raising taxes.
The 2022 proposal gained broad bipartisan support in the legislature, passing the House and Senate. Key to approval was backing from Republicans representing deeply conservative districts which showed eroding opposition even among evangelical voters. The bill contained sufficient regulatory restrictions on gaming activities and advertising to gain hesitant lawmakers’ votes. Upon passage, the lottery bill was slated to go before Alabama voters in the November 2022 general election. Supportive campaigning and advertising leading up was expected ahead of this definitive public vote.
While Alabama does not currently have a lottery, it has not been for lack of numerous attempts over two centuries. Early sporadic proposals from the 1800s onward never gained enough momentum due to legal and religious objections. A racetrack lottery provided a brief legal avenue for Alabama lottery gaming in the 1930s. But it was not until Governor Siegelman’s push in 1999 based on education needs that the state came closest to approving a lottery before voters rejected the measure.
Smaller victories like the veteran’s lottery game in 2003 and continued lobbying by tribal gaming interests kept the possibility of a lottery alive despite multiple failed votes. A meticulously constructed legislative lottery proposal focusing revenue on urgent needs like Medicaid and rural healthcare funding finally gained adequate backing in 2022 for a public referendum. Conservative resistance has gradually receded along with old moral objections as many Alabamians already participate readily in bordering states’ lotteries. The 2022 vote will determine if Alabama belatedly joins the overwhelming majority of U.S. states in allowing a state-run lottery.