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It may be the year of the lottery

Lt. gov. says it’s time.

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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: Halter campaigns for lottery.
  • STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: Halter campaigns for lottery.

As of this writing, no president or chancellor of a public college or university in Arkansas has publicly endorsed a proposed state-lottery amendment that would create scholarships for students to attend those institutions. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the principal promoter of the amendment, says that he expects some of them will before Election Day.

Halter says some presidents and chancellors have told him privately that they support Proposed Constitutional Amendment No. 3, but they have to be careful in showing their support, for various reasons, such as a board of trustees that is divided on the issue.

In the meantime, Halter cites endorsements by John White, former chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (White was at Georgia Tech when Georgia established a lottery for scholarships); the Board of Visitors of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, several labor unions, and 38 mayors and county judges, as well as various candidates for office.

Asked about support from the state Senate, over which Halter presides when it's in session, he said that he hadn't asked any senator to publicly endorse the amendment. A good thing; some of them oppose the amendment, for the same reasons that other Arkansans do. They doubt that it will produce as much revenue as supporters claim, and they don't believe the state should be taking advantage of its own citizens, especially the low-income ones. Tolerating gambling, as at the state's two race tracks is one thing, they say. Operating the game yourself is another.

Some legislators may even have religious objections, although those have become rarer in a state that has seen both gambling and liquor laws relaxed over the last 30 years or so. Even some of the church-based groups opposed to Amendment 3 cite budgets more than Bibles. They also cite experience. Arkansas has rejected lotteries before.

But the lottery's chances may be better this year. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia now have lotteries, including most of Arkansas's Bible Belt neighbors. A poll taken for the University of Central Arkansas in the spring showed the lottery favored by 64 percent of respondents. That was a hypothetical lottery, though, with no organized opposition.

Halter didn't have to ask for senatorial support, because Amendment 3 was not put before the legislature for referral to a popular vote. In 2007, Halter asked the legislature to refer a lottery amendment to the people, and he was rebuffed. Amendment 3 got on the ballot by means of petitions signed by eligible voters. John A. Bailey, a Little Rock property owner and executive, put up most of the money, some $400,000, for this year's successful campaign to gather signatures. He's by far the largest contributor to the lottery effort.

Though he's been lieutenant governor since last January, Halter remains something of a political mystery man, a native Arkansan who came back after a number of years in Washington, and measured a governor's race before settling for something more winnable.

But to be lieutenant governor is to barely hold office. It's most unusual, if not unprecedented, for a lieutenant governor to front a campaign for something as important and controversial as a lottery.  The general belief is that Halter hopes to use the lottery as a platform to higher office. That this is a sound political strategy is somewhat less widely believed. A politician can make fierce, unforgetful enemies in a campaign like this.

Asked if he hopes to advance his political career through the lottery campaign, Halter says, “I see this as an opportunity to advance Arkansas.”

“We're ahead of only West Virginia in the percentage of our people who are college graduates,” Halter says. “To compete for high-paying jobs, you have to have a well-educated work force.” Other states, once no better than Arkansas, have created this well-educated work force, he says. “Look at North Carolina, and Georgia. Austin, Texas, and Little Rock used to be virtually identical.” The Georgia lottery has funded college scholarships for over a million students, he says.

A frequent criticism of lotteries, and frequently true, is that revenue intended to augment tax dollars, for education say, ends up replacing tax dollars, so that there's no real gain. Halter carefully points out that Amendment 3 says, “Lottery proceeds remaining after payment of operating expenses and prizes shall supplement, not supplant, non-lottery educational resources.” But lacking definite amounts or percentages, how would that provision be enforced? Sue, Halter says.

A couple of committees are raising money to fight Amendment 3, with most of their contributions coming from churches and in comparatively small amounts. The opponents have raised far less than the proponents, who plan a closing TV campaign.    

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