On Nov. 4, Arkansas voters will decide on a public policy initiative that tackles head-on our bottom-rung rankings in higher education and personal income.
Proposed Constitutional Amendment 3 authorizes the Arkansas General Assembly to establish a state-owned lottery. All proceeds, after prizes and expenses, go solely to college scholarships and grants for Arkansas students in Arkansas colleges and universities. The existing constitutional ban would remain for any lottery that fails to meet these criteria.
As lieutenant governor, I worked with the Hope for Arkansas Committee to craft a tightly drawn amendment that is simply stated and easily understood. We cleared several hurdles to bring a Scholarship Lottery Amendment to a vote of the people, chief among them the gathering of more than 130,000 signatures from Arkansans in all 75 counties.
On Oct. 16, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously rejected an 11th-hour legal challenge by a special interest group that attempted to derail democracy with spurious arguments, including the incredulous claim that Arkansas voters don't understand what a state lottery is.
Evidence to the contrary is in plain sight. Count the Arkansas tags on vehicles parked outside the Stateline Citgo in Texarkana, Texas; or Mr. T's Liquor Store in Cardwell, Mo.; or Freddy's One Stop in Roland, Okla. These retailers, just across the Arkansas border, are the top lottery retailers in their respective states.
Tens of thousands of Arkansans spend millions on state lotteries every year. Audiences at civic clubs and community forums from Texarkana to Fort Smith to Springdale have witnessed the outbound flow of traffic and revenue. They appreciate the need to keep Arkansas money in Arkansas, working for public education here at home.
Elected officials, educators and business leaders from Magnolia to Pine Bluff to West Memphis understand the value of investing an estimated $100 million annually in college scholarships and grants for Arkansas citizens enrolled in Arkansas colleges and universities — two-year or four-year, public or private. Many have told me about friends or family struggling to save for college, while dealing with record prices for gas, food and health care.
Nearly everyone I talk with about the scholarship lottery (including all native Arkansans) has heard the phrase “Thank God for Mississippi.” Many whispered it themselves, whenever faced with Arkansas's poor national ranking on socioeconomic scales. “Thank God for West Virginia” was news to most. If not for West Virginia, however, Arkansas would rank last in the percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree.
As it is, being 49th in educational attainment and 48th or 49th in personal income is no way to compete for the jobs of the 21st century. The high-paying jobs are knowledge-based. Communication and technical skills are paramount.
For many who buy scratch-off tickets, a lottery is an optional entertainment expense. I see the lottery as an investment in the state's future. I have challenged crowds in cafeterias, convention halls and coffee shops across Arkansas to come up with another means of generating so much revenue in so little time for such a pressing need. There have been no takers.
I encourage all Arkansas voters to read the Scholarship Lottery Amendment before they go to the polls. It's only a couple of pages.
The text can be found online at www.hopeforarkansas.com. Note the safeguard provision defining lottery proceeds as supplemental revenue. This will be new money for new scholarships for thousands of Arkansans.
Amendment 3 is a winner for Arkansas.
Bill Halter is Arkansas lieutenant governor.