Columns » Max Brantley

Place your bets

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The shape of Arkansas's new lottery might be the most interesting debate of the 2009 legislative session.

House Speaker Robbie Wills and Reps. Greg Reep and Bruce Maloch put their names on the skeleton House lottery bill. They got the jump on Sen. Terry Smith of Hot Springs. Hmmm.  Smith is a bumptious sort and vindictive. When his wife lost a consulting gig at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, he made it a point to make its proprietor, the University of Arkansas, pay for its lack of deference to his family's income.

Smith's self-interested ways aren't the primary concern in his emergence as Senate lottery godfather, though it's an unsettling record for the lead sponsor of a $250 million enterprise likely to be governed by a board of political appointees. The larger concern is his role as protector of Hot Springs interests, particularly the Oaklawn Park racetrack and slot parlor.

Oaklawn stood mute during the lottery debate. Its officials knew as well as anyone that a lottery proposal stripped of casino gambling was a sure thing with voters. But with Smith handling enabling legislation in the Senate, it can be confident that the competition is of the least troublesome sort.

The Arkansas lottery was never likely to be too problematic for Oaklawn in the beginning. Arkansas is unlikely to authorize video lottery terminals (TV slot machines) at convenience stores at the outset or the round-the-clock jackpots of other state lotteries. We'll have weekly drawings of the conventional sort. There will be scratch-off tickets, I'm sure. But the fast action machines — which would mean instant statewide competition to Oaklawn wagering — won't be part of the initial rollout when our state house of gambling goes on-line. (Bad choice of words.  No way Oaklawn will allow on-line lottery wagering.)

Then there's the shape of the scholarship program. Legislators seem inclined to favor a program in which the money follows students and is not parceled out to institutions. That's wise, though the new money still will add fuel to the Arkansas college marketing war.

Many legislators want to devote a portion of the money to targeted scholarships — say in nursing or science and technology curriculums. This isn't so wise. It follows the Walton model for support of the University of Arkansas. Business and science good; poets and artists bad. It's a short-sighted view of education. We want more kids to go to college, period. A bigger number will lift every specific field. The state shouldn't elevate one type of student at the expense of another. We have ample evidence of the perils of fragmented scholarship programs in the big surplus in existing state higher ed scholarship funds. They are too diffuse; too hard to figure out.

Arkansas must think hard, too, about whether it will emulate Georgia and provide scholarships only to those with 3.0 high school averages in a college core curriculum. This requirement would all but guarantee that the bulk of the money would go to people who were already college-bound — a disproportionately white and middle class group. It would do little to raise the overall college-going rate.

Universal, simple and fair should be the watchwords for lottery scholarships. Every high school graduate should be entitled to the same serving of money as anyone else — poet or programmer. And the student must make adequate progress in college to keep it coming.

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