By the Arkansas Lottery Commission's count, 23 people spoke at the hearing last week to receive public comment on the lottery commission's proposal to allow tickets to be sold by ticket vending machines (or TVMs). Two spoke in favor of the machines, while the rest were vehemently against them. But from what the opponents were saying, it was more than the vending machines they were against.
Most commenters used their allotted time to talk about the evils of gambling and the lottery itself, quoting scripture and publicly stating their personal Christian beliefs. Some comments took on an anti-government tone.
"I don't want any more money going to this circus of a lottery commission," said Kenny Wallis, a coordinator for the anti-immigrant group Secure Arkansas, "or to finding the ivory-billed woodpecker or social justice or to anything else that wastes taxpayer money."
Wallis surely heard, as did all the rest who were gathered in one of the conference rooms at the Wyndham Hotel in North Little Rock, that the subject at hand was whether or not to allow TVMs, not encroaching socialism or the moral decay that the lottery would, according to some present, certainly bring to our state.
Sarah Bean of North Little Rock stepped up to the podium and began, "Our nation is reaching a critical time in its history. We are a by-the-people, for-the-people nation, but lately American voices are not being heard. We saw this a few weeks ago with the overturning of proposition 8 in California." She went on to say that should the commission decide to use the vending machines, it would be just one more example of a decision made against the "voice of the people."
Bean didn't note the overwhelming majority of voters who approved a statewide lottery in 2008.
As commenters continued to speak, their comments became more and more religious in tone. One man quoted scripture at length before telling the commissioners they were "robbing the poor" and would one day be held accountable for what they've done. The lottery commissioners, seemingly anchored in concrete, unable to escape the public flogging, nodded politely as each person offered their comments.
With every Bible verse that was quoted, the crowd became increasingly vocal, starting out by applauding loudly for commenters who proudly expressed their religious beliefs and ending up interrupting speakers with "Mmm hmmm" and "That's right." It wasn't long before people were actually blurting out "Amen" whenever someone brought up their faith in "the Light, Lord Jesus Christ," as did one speaker.
Some even suggested sly and evil motives on the part of the lottery commissioners.
"This whole lottery thing was brought in low-key so Christians wouldn't know about it," one woman said.
One observer, who said he believed firmly in the separation of church and state, said he was disappointed in the tone the public comment session had taken.
"What I saw at that meeting was the reason why people have such a skeptical attitude toward evangelical Christians," he said. "It would be nice if they were armed with facts and not just scripture."
After the hearing had come to a close, reporters interviewed Loretta Lever of Little Rock, who spoke in favor of the vending machines. TVM opponents who stood nearby chided the reporters, saying they were members of the "liberal media" and had no business interviewing Lever when so many had spoken out against the machines.
At a lottery commission meeting held immediately after the hearing for public comment, commissioners voted unanimously to approve the use of TVMs.
Opponents who stayed for the commission meeting felt as though they had been ignored or that the comment session was some sort of kangaroo court. From the commission's perspective, their job is to maximize scholarship dollars. Using vending machines that the commission has already paid for in an effort to increase sales was a no-brainer.