by Max Brantley
I've just left the Old Supreme Court chamber at the Capitol, where House Speaker Robbie Wills was explaining elements of a draft bill on the lottery. It's not on-line yet, but I suspect it will be before long at Wills' website.
This is strictly structural stuff. Some ethical matters have been addressed: The FOI is explicitly applied, except on matters related to computer security. There's a two-year cooling off period before a lottery commissioner or employee can lobby on lottery issues or represent lottery vendors or retailers. No word yet on pay of commissioners. (UPDATE: John Williams reports Speaker Wills says he hopes they'll serve without pay.) More from John here.
The draft says "vendors" and "retailers" may not give gifts to commissioners, employees or family members. Does that cover their lobbyists? Friends of vendors and retailers? I hate to be suspicious, but history intervenes.
The draft suggests a 5 percent sales commission for retailers. That's less than average, Wills said. He emphasized these were suggestions, because the commission will set its rules. Members will be appointed by the House Speaker, Senate president pro tem and governor.
They'll decide on multi-state lottery participation, but that seems a cinch. The draft says they'll have the leeway to sell tickets by machine, though not operate video lottery terminals.
John Williams should have more later.
The big fight is over the scholarship program and the notion that the legislative appropriation process won't be followed. A lot of what-ifs being offered by people I respect on this issue, but with annual sessions, initial commissioners beholden to current leadership and some careful drafting, I still think that appropriation problem is overstated.
The fight is over how much to spend on scholarships.
Legislators believe the Father of the Ark. Lottery, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter -- overstates revenue and overstates the size of individual grants that could be given under any scenario.
There's a fight over means testing. A fight over gradepoint and test-score qualifications.
I'm beginning to sense that the existing means-tested Challenge and Go (for poorest students) scholarships will be folded to some degree into lottery revenue with lower qualifications and much higher, or no, means test. That's good.
More interesting, ultimately, are a couple of fights: 1) to provide support (maybe $16 million) to concurrent enrollment students -- high school students taking college courses for credits. This is a college shore-up provision to make a profit center out programs already in operation. That's not new support for higher education. It's also not college by my definition. They'll marginally improve it by counting concurrent enrollment hours toward a cap of hours for which scholarships may be received, probably around 130. I still don't much like it.
2) I really don't like the move to set aside a bucket of money for vocational programs, another way to pour additional money into community colleges to replace money that is already being spent. It's a college scholarship lottery, not an auto mechanic lottery. If vocational training -- HVAC, aircraft maintenance, culinary arts, whatever -- is to qualify, it should be as part of an associate degree or similar college program. Left to Beebe's devices, he'd pump lottery money into expanding truck driver training for J.B. Hunt. I've got nothing against truck drivers, but I don't think that's what voters had in mind in approving a lottery for college scholarships.
The fun begins.
Inside baseball note: It was bond lawyer Jack Williams who said the lottery amendment was written as it was so that bonds could be issued if necessary to start up scholarships ahead of a revenue stream.
No commission appointed by this legislature is going to authorize that, I don't believe. (Unless bond daddies get to them -- thus the need for a no-gifts-from-nobody rule.) I think the lottery will start in January 2010 and first scholarships will be fall of 2010. I think a cautious amount will be provided, with some flexible legal language to allow an increase if revenues run well ahead of projections. That's prudent. It's not the instant payout Halter wants in 2009, but he's in no position to change that.