Columns » John Brummett

Odd chorus sings against lottery



The church ladies and gentlemen have been joined in the choir by the left-wing pundits.

And this is what they're raising their harmonizing voices to sing: This proposed amendment for a state lottery for college scholarships could actually open the state to casinos.

That's because the only state constitutional prohibition on gambling that we have now is a provision outlawing lotteries, which this amendment would necessarily repeal. That existing prohibition, they warn, is the only sure thing standing between us and wholesale Vegas-ization.

So these curious bedfellows complain that the amendment's popular name and ballot title are fatally flawed because they don't say up-front that this amendment would repeal this lottery prohibition.

These arguments are legally and politically tactical. As such, they veil these simpler facts: Church ladies are against a lottery itself because they think it's a sin. Left-wing pundits are against a lottery itself because they think it exploits poor people and that we'd be better off with a more progressive system of taxation.

But both extremes know that, if allowed to vote, the people of Arkansas are apt to approve this lottery.

So the church ladies and gentlemen have taken this legal and political tactic to the state Supreme Court to seek to have the lottery issue thrown off the November ballot. The fatal legal flaw, if found by the court, would be that the voter wouldn't get enough vital information on the printed material on the popular name and ballot title at the polling place.

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, champion of this amendment for a lottery for college scholarships, is shaking his head. He says a lottery means a lottery, not a casino.

“Don't words mean anything anymore?” he asks.

He says he's been steadfast from the first time he invoked this lottery as one of his initiatives, first as a brief candidate for governor and then a successful one for lieutenant governor. He swore then and swears now that he's not for casinos. He says any intimation that he's slyly working for the likes of Harrah's is an outrageous slander.

Anyway, Halter says this: Even if you want to apply the word “lottery” to mean all gambling, and thus casinos, he'd like you to take the time to read the last line of this ballot title.

It says the proposed amendment prohibits lotteries except as “herein provided.” And “herein provided” means what the amendment says otherwise.

This is what the amendment says otherwise: All details will be left to the state Legislature and whatever agency and regulatory procedures the Legislature establishes. And all net proceeds of this lottery, after prizes and operational costs, must go to a cash-fund account in state government and get used exclusively for college scholarships.

So even in the remote chance that the proposal's critics from the right and left are correct, you'd have this worst-case scenario:

• “Lottery” does indeed get defined as “casino,” at least by state legislators after being lobbied to that effect by winers and diners from Oaklawn, Southland and Harrah's. I doubt our legislators would ever do that, but let's say for the sake of argument that they do.

• The next thing that happens is that Oaklawn and Southland presume to turn their “games of skill” into full-fledged casinos and Harrah's presumes to move into, say, Hot Springs.

• So then someone — the church ladies again, probably — will file suit alleging these casinos are constitutionally forbidden by that aforementioned “herein provided” phrase in Halter's amendment. I doubt that a court would rule against that argument, but let's say for the sake of argument one does.

• At that point, the final and very worst case scenario would be that Oaklawn, Southland and Harrah's would open full-fledged casinos that, after state audits of their costs of operations and payouts, would send all their net profits to the state to be spent on college scholarships.

Why, we'd have enough money for all of us to go to college three or four times each.

A postscript: An article in the Tulsa World quotes an Oklahoma official as saying the proposed Arkansas lottery, by having in its constitutional text no minimum take for the state, could provide larger prizes than Oklahoma's lottery and thereby pretty nearly ruin theirs.

That might be one way to beat Oklahoma, football being out of the question.

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