Top Nevada Democratic lawmakers said Friday they're betting the time is right for the nation's No. 1 gambling state to create a lottery to solve what they called a "crisis" in education funding.
"Our classrooms are too large and not enough students have textbooks," said Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson. He and two other elected Democrats called for a "dedicated and directed" funding stream for schools, which tend to perform below the national average in many surveys. Nevada ranks 48th in overall education spending.
The state constitution currently prohibits a state lottery, and Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, acknowledged that lottery proposals have died 26 times in the Legislature since 1970.
The state's powerful gambling interests have discouraged previous proposals for a state lottery, maintaining the state should not compete with its No. 1 industry.
"The government doesn't go into the car business or compete with supermarkets," said Bill Bible, president of the Nevada Resort Association, which represents many of the state's major hotel-casinos.
The association has no position on a lottery, Bible said. But he said many members think that Nevada's reliance on gambling and tourism makes it different from the District of Columbia and 39 states that have lotteries. Democratic officials said 24 of those states dedicate at least some lottery money to schools.
"Other states don't have a gambling establishment that contributes about 50 percent to the state economy," Bible said.
Legislators would have to approve a lottery and voters would have to support the idea twice to change the constitution. Perkins said it could be put before voters in 2008.
"The size of the state ... the perspective in the state ... the state of our educational system makes it the right time," Buckley said.
Buckley pointed to Nevada's below-average rank in 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress comparisons of fourth- and eighth-grader tests. Just 23 percent of Nevada fourth graders and 20 percent of eighth graders were proficient or better in math, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Only 20 percent of fourth graders and 21 percent of eighth graders were proficient or better in reading.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio said in a telephone interview from Reno that he wasn't opposed to a lottery but noted the issue fared poorly in previous legislative sessions.
"We've looked at it in the past and the indication was that it wouldn't produce that much (revenue)," the Republican lawmaker said. "We have a small base for a single-state lottery."
Buckley said Nevada, with nearly 2.3 million people, has grown large enough to support a lottery with attractive cash prizes.
A lottery could raise $30 million to $50 million per year, Perkins said, citing figures from the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the research arm of the Legislature.
"If you put it to a vote, it will overwhelmingly pass," Buckley declared at the news conference at the Clark County School District.
Freshman Democratic state Sen. Steven Horsford said he found "a great appetite for a state lottery" among voters he met campaigning in his Las Vegas-area district.
Perkins said the measure would not compete with a school funding initiative backed by Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons. The Education First initiative would require lawmakers to fund kindergarten through 12th-grade education before other state programs. It passed in November and faces another statewide vote in 2006.
Gibbons spokeswoman Amy Spanbauer said the congressman, who is considering a run for governor in 2006, had no position on a lottery.
But she said "there are certainly enough revenue streams in the state to fund education. Lawmakers just need to make the tough decisions."