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Arkansas voters get first lottery-only proposal

Oct 31, 2008, 7:24 pm

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Arkansas LotteryArkansas Lottery: Arkansas voters get first lottery-only proposal

Arkansas banned lotteries even before state lawmakers determined how to properly pronounce the state's name.

The 1874 ban held through the era of Hot Springs' illegal casinos and their destruction at the hands of sledgehammer-wielding state troopers nearly a century later. In the time since, attempts to legalize a government-run lottery always included bringing back casino games or something else just as unpalatable for a state squarely in the nation's Bible Belt.

Now, though, a proposal backed by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter offers Arkansas its first chance to vote solely on whether the state should get into the business of scratch-offs and lottery drawings to fund college scholarships. Still, the proposal remains a political gamble for Halter, a Clinton administration official just getting his start in state government.

"In terms of just politics, this one is probably a greater long-term political negative for me than it is a long-term political positive," Halter said. But "that's not what we're evaluating and that's not why we pushed this."

Instead, Halter points to the central theme of his lottery push that lasted through his aborted 2006 gubernatorial campaign and into his second-floor Capitol office — education. Counting Washington, D.C., Arkansas ranks 50th in the nation in the number of residents with bachelor's degrees.

Halter's proposal would fund college scholarships through the games, likely to mirror those in surrounding states. The state likely would join either the Mega Millions or Powerball cabals to boost its pay outs, Halter said.

Though the state Legislature ultimately would design the games, Halter's campaign feels the lottery could draw in millions for Arkansas, some of which is already heading out to surrounding states. During his run for governor in the Democratic primary, Halter said a lottery could bring in as much as $250 million, a figure that he said was based on lottery revenue in Georgia. Now, Halter's Hope for Arkansas committee estimates a lottery could bring in $100 million, a per-capita estimate based on net lottery proceeds for each of Arkansas' surrounding states with lotteries.

However, opponents worry the lottery will subsidize the scholarships on the backs of the state's poor.

"Virtually all the empirical evidence indicates it's a very regressive tax," said Larry Page, director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council. "The poor do gamble an inordinate amount of money in the lottery. Some people say that that's because they're stupid. I don't think it's they're stupid. I think it's because they're desperate."

Research by Charles Clotfelter, an economics professor at Duke University, has shown that the poor spend a higher percentage of their income on lottery tickets than the middle- and upper-class. However, he has stressed that didn't make the games predatory.

"This fact does not by itself make lotteries a good thing or a bad thing. It only means that lotteries tend to have a particular pattern of consumption," Clotfelter said in comments to a 2000 congressional hearing. "The relationship of lottery purchases to income looks more like those of chicken wings or barbecue, items for which lower income households tend to spend a larger share of their income than those who are more affluent."

Though the poor often spend more of their income on the games, Halter declined to endorse the idea of a sliding scale granting poor students more lottery scholarship money. He said the students could seek money from federal Pell Grants and other programs to pay for college costs.

Casinos remain a concern for others opposing the measure, who warn the lottery proposal's ambiguous wording could allow state lawmakers to legalize the games in the state. The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit in October that called the measure ambiguous, but didn't directly answer whether casinos are a type of lottery.

Despite that, lotteries remain tied to casinos throughout Arkansas history. Voters rejected hybrid casino and lottery proposals in 1996 and 2000. Others offered more heavy-handed enticement, like a lottery proposal floated in the Legislature in 1990 that tied its passage with repealing a constitutional amendment that required state officials to uphold segregation.

"Casinos are generally more controversial than lotteries," said Michael Nelson, a political science professor who has studied the South's history with gambling at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. "So if you're antigambling and there's a way to raise casinos as a specter, then politically that's a more astute strategy."

Still, gambling already exists in Arkansas, as a Hot Springs horse racing track and West Memphis dog track now feature electronic poker and blackjack and games similar to slot machines. Voters in 2006 supported legalizing charitable bingo games.

However, Nelson said religious reservations may sway voters away.

"The South has been the last region in the country to move toward legalized gambling, whether lotteries or casinos. Clearly, that's because Protestant Christianity is more prevalent in the South," he said. "In Arkansas, the two largest denominations are Southern Baptists and United Methodists and they're leading the opposition."

Polls by the University of Arkansas and the University of Central Arkansas show about two-thirds of likely voters support the measure. Still, Gov. Mike Beebe and top political leaders have shied away from outright endorsing or opposing the lottery measure. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., recently started telling constituents he planned to vote against the measure on grounds it targeted the poor, but only when questioned about it.

Despite that, Halter said he had faith that voters would back the measure.

"They can make their mind up, they can pull the switch in the voting booth as they see fit," Halter said. "Everybody gets a vote. Everybody gets one vote. They're all weighted equally."


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