Columns » Max Brantley

Wheel of fortune

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Who said Arkansas was the buckle of the Bible belt?

No major candidate for governor flatly opposes a state lottery.

The subject is suddenly hot. When Bill Halter finally announced his Democratic candidacy last weekend, he called for a state lottery to support education.

Minutes after Halter’s announcement, Attorney General Mike Beebe, his Democratic opponent, chimed in. He said he could get behind the right sort of lottery, such as one devoted to higher education, as Georgia does. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican candidate, has said he’d be neutral on a lottery initiative, but it could be good for schools if it happened..

Halter clearly has identified this as a useful, maybe dominant, campaign issue. Why not? Poll after poll shows a large majority in favor of a state lottery, particularly earmarked for education. Religious lobbies would fight it, but fact is we’re almost surrounded by lottery states already.

Candidates for governor in other states have built winning campaigns around lotteries. The issue provides Halter with an instant kinship with a lot of regular folks, few of whom he’s met in his many years away from the state.

Our opinion: It’s fool’s gold and not only because lotteries prey on the poor.

A study of 12 lottery states in 2004 by a couple of college professors gives you some idea of a lottery’s false allure. After a first-year infusion of cash for schools, the annual per capita increase in school funding in lottery states dropped sharply from historical levels. In short, lottery money replaced, it did not augment, existing school support.

Halter is at least focusing on the grade school level. The higher education scholarships financed by some lotteries have been a disproportionate boon to upper-income whites. And states have had a devil of a time keeping revenue up after the initial surge of interest. In some places, benefits have declined.

Still, it’s easy to talk about a popular idea, particularly when it is only theoretical. Voters won’t see a lottery proposal on the ballot until at least November 2008, and then only if the legislature is suddenly willing. You also have to wonder if race track forces might get involved. Removal of the lottery prohibition from the state Constitution could open the door to gambling expansion by statute, which the tracks would oppose. Writing a lottery amendment to protect their gambling monopoly could be complicated.

Halter said a lottery could produce $250 million a year for education, or about $100 in profits per capita. That seems unlikely. One Arkansas study put the net revenue nearly $200 million less. Tennessee, whose 2004 lottery startup was more successful than anticipated, made $42 per capita in profit its first year, according to the Nashville Tennessean. A similar performance would produce $100 million or so in Arkansas. But trade group data shows Texas netted only about $38 per person from its lottery in 2004, Louisiana $27 and Missouri about $40.

Halter’s talk about an end to pork barrel apropriations and use of the existing state surplus for education are better ideas, worth serious discussion. Even his promise of stronger spending oversight could be more than standard campaign rhetoric if backed by specifics to correct the disparity in school administrative pay and excessive outlays on sports facilities. But these are complicated, divisive topics. It’s much easier to spin the big wheel and shout, “Come on, big money!”




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