Siegelman: Not this lottery

Published 12:18 am Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a staunch Baptist, once joined the loud “Christian” refrain opposing a state lottery as a sin, immoral, something so wicked it would surely usher in prostitution, muggings, robberies and create a wave of gambling addiction. These were the arguments used by opponents to defeat the education lottery referendum in 1999.

siegelmanI went directly to the largest gathering of many faiths, mostly Baptist, and listened to their holy proclamations about the lottery being “immoral.” I stood and answered: “I’ll tell you what I think is immoral. I think it is immoral for children because of the color of their skin or where they were born or to whom, not to be able to reach their God-given potential because they can’t get a quality education.”

I had been asking the people of Alabama to establish a lottery since 1989. Over and over I pleaded, “Every child, regardless of where they are born or to whom, deserve the right to quality education and every child should have the hope and dream of knowing that if they make their grades and stay out of trouble, they’ll be able to go to college free.”

In 1998, I was elected governor and again called for an education lottery. A Georgia-style lottery with 100 percent of the proceeds going into the Alabama Education Trust Fund.

First, the Alabama education lottery would have provided free higher education for every high school graduate, tuition-free college, community colleges or trade schools.

Second, the Alabama education lottery would provide free preschool, relieving working mothers of the worry and expense of daycare, knowing at the end of the day their child would be better prepared to read, write and get along with other children before they entered the first grade.

Finally, the Alabama education lottery would provide technology to put the world’s knowledge at the fingertips of every child, to assist teachers in accessing lectures by the brightest instructors in the world on every conceivable subject. For rural Alabama, which lacks the tax resources and ability to raise needed education dollars, technology would be the great equalizer, bringing the best educational resources, lectures and free college classes from the best colleges and universities in the world to every child in every part of the state.

In order to get this constitutional amendment establishing the education lottery passed, I had to raise money for television, radio and newspaper advertising and money to get out the vote. Unknown at the time, Karl Rove’s confidante, Ralph Reed, president of the Christian Coalition, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Mike Scanlon, who had worked for my opponent, Bob Riley, and the Mississippi Choctaw Indian casinos had engaged in a money laundering scheme to funnel up to $20 million from the Indian casinos into Alabama to defeat me and to defeat the lottery, to defeat other gaming proposals. (See the 2011 book “Capitol Punishment”, by Jack Abramoff.)

The opposition, funded by the Mississippi casinos, ran a smothering barrage of TV ads portraying corrupt politicians with cash stacked high like gangsters, ending their ads with: “Maybe a lottery, but not this lottery.”

Knowing I had a fight on my hands, I asked Alabama business leaders to kick in the lion’s share of money needed to pass the lottery referendum. Business leaders knew how Alabama would benefit from an educated workforce and generously supported the lottery campaign. On Oct. 12, 1999, the Mississippi casino owners and states surrounding Alabama won. The majority of voters were duped by some good-meaning Christians and a few preachers, politicians and the Christian Coalition who were bought by millions from Mississippi casinos. I can forgive those who came after me, but I’ll never forget or forgive those who put their greed for money and power ahead of the lives of our children.

Among the CEOs I had asked to give or raise money to pass the lottery referendum was HealthSouth’s Richard Scrushy. HealthSouth ended up raising $250,000. I asked Scrushy to rejoin a non-paying board to which he had been appointed by three previous governors and from which he had recently resigned. My political enemies charged that this was a bribe.

Months after the referendum had been defeated, months after I had re-appointed Scrushy to the state board, HealthSouth gave $250,000 to pay off a debt that had been incurred by the Democratic Party during the lottery campaign. Eight months after the lottery had been defeated, I agreed to be on a bank loan to help pay off the lottery debt. Obviously, there would have been no way for anyone to have foreseen a lottery debt at the time I made the appointment of Scrushy, but that didn’t stop the prosecutors from alleging I had profited from “a deal to appoint Mr. Scrushy.” It was so ludicrous that my lawyers didn’t even press the point.

The trial judge, Mark Fuller, would not allow us to tell the jury that the U.S. attorney’s husband had been paid by my opponents to defeat me. Fuller, who had been on the Republican Executive Committee and had opposed the lottery, told the jury that a contribution to the lottery campaign could be considered “a thing of value” to me because I supported the lottery referendum, even though I did not personally benefit by a single penny. I had been indicted one month after I announced I would run for re-election. Then I was brought to trial one month before my primary election in 2006.

Now some of these same people who fought the lottery in 1999, whose greed or lust for power cheated our children out of a better life, want Alabama voters to bail them out.

First, please remember, Medicaid would not be in trouble in the first place if elected Alabama politicians had accepted the billions of dollars that came along with the Affordable Care Act. They foolishly looked that gift horse in the mouth, yelping political criticism at President Obama trying to curry political favor. Shame on you!

Second, some hypocrites who opposed the lottery before now want to be bailed out from having to pass tax reform to force large foreign corporations and out-of-state, multinational corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. Hundreds of companies make billions of profits in Alabama but don’t pay a penny. Foreign corporations which own nearly 30 percent of our timber land, pay only pennies in taxes compared to our neighbor, Georgia.

Finally, for goodness sakes, pass true home rule to allow school boards to propose ballot initiatives to allow citizens to vote to raise money for their local schools.

Today, I am not even sure how much money a lottery would yield, but I do know this: whatever it might raise should go to educate our children and voters should not let the governor or Alabama Legislature get their hands on a penny of it.

So I say, Maybe a lottery, but not this lottery.


Don Siegelman was governor of Alabama from 1999-2003. He is serving a six-year sentence at a federal correctional institution in Oakdale, La. He is scheduled for release in August 2017.