By Sam Prickett
When lawmakers return to Montgomery next month, they’ll be working under the long shadow of COVID-19.
A temperature check and questionnaire will be required for entrance to the State House, while legislators will be tested for the virus during their first week back, “and probably subsequently, depending on how things go,” Rep. David Wheeler, R-District 47, told members of the Hoover Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 21.
Wheeler was a featured speaker during the chamber’s virtual luncheon, along with state Senate Majority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-District 16; Sen. Dan Roberts, R-District 15; and Rep. David Faulkner, R-District 46.
The legislators previewed their priorities for the upcoming legislative session, including increasing COVID protections for businesses and, potentially, legalizing gambling statewide.
Waggoner said that, in addition to passing the state’s education and general fund budgets, the Legislature would make business legislation to renew “tax credits and rebates to industries that are due to expire” a priority. There also will be a vote to prevent state taxes on federal stimulus checks, he said, as well as to expand broadband.
Faulkner, meanwhile, said he’d been working on a “COVID Immunity Bill,” which he said would protect businesses and schools from COVID-related lawsuits.
“We want to give people the confidence that they can send the kids back to school, get back to work and not worry about COVID lawsuits,” he said.
Financially, Alabama is doing well, Roberts said.
“Through leadership in the chambers, I believe we’re economically in some of the best shape … . Our education budget is in great shape thanks to decisions that were put in place back in 2010,” he said, referring to the Rolling Reserve Budget Act, which caps education spending based on a rolling 15-year average growth rate.
But the state could feel COVID’s economic impact in the near future, he warned.
“My ultimate concern is that the impact on small business is going to be most felt in our next year’s budget,” he said. That impact may make other sources of revenue, even controversial ones, more appealing to legislators.
Gambling Expected to Take Center Stage
The potential legalization of gambling across the state will be “front and center” this year, Waggoner said, following a study ordered by Gov. Kay Ivey that determined “gambling will work in the state of Alabama.”
The study projected that instituting a statewide lottery would generate between $200 million and $300 million in annual revenue, while the lottery, casinos and sports betting combined would bring in $700 million per year.
Legalizing gambling would require amending the state constitution, meaning that the final yes-or-no decision would be up to voters. But what exactly would appear on the ballot – such as what types of gambling would be included and where the revenue would go – is still very much up in the air, legislators said.
Wheeler said his vote would be determined by “exactly how it’s written. If it’s giving a monopoly to one group or another, that might be hard for some of us to vote on. As with any legislation, the devil’s in the details.”
Waggoner said the legislation likely would be split into multiple bills “pertaining to the various topics of gambling,” such as casinos, the lottery and sports betting.
Some of those individual bills may have better chances of passage than others, Faulkner said.
“I think I would probably be against full-scale gambling – in other words, casinos in our state – due to all the issues and problems that they bring in,” he said. “But I do think the lottery is probably the one that has the most chance … . There’s clearly growing support for it in the state based on polling data that I’ve seen.”
Faulkner said he believed that support was tied to Georgia’s lottery model, which allocates lottery revenue to specific education programs, including college scholarships and pre-K programs.
“Most people when they think of the word ‘lottery,’ they think of an education lottery,” he said. “They think of Georgia. ‘Yes, I’m for it if the money goes to education.’ … I don’t think the Legislature will pass something that’s not dedicated to education.”
Even so, he said he was skeptical.
“I personally am not a big fan of the lottery, just based on what I’ve seen in other states. … I would hate to base any revenue for essential services on gambling,” he said.
Waggoner said he expected any gambling measure to stir up debate.
“It’s going to be highly controversial, but again, whatever we pass will ultimately go to the vote of the people to say yes or no,” he said. “In my opinion, I think a vast majority of the people in Alabama want the opportunity to vote, and if it goes to a vote, I think it will pass.”