Columns » John Brummett

Spare me the righteousness


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I signed the lottery amendment at my polling place on Super Tuesday. Other people seemed to be declining, rather haughtily. One woman stuck up her nose.

So let me say this: Oppose, if you must, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's proposal for a constitutional amendment to create this statewide lottery for college scholarships. But I'd personally appreciate it if you'd spare me any righteousness about how the state must never promote gambling.

The state already promotes gambling, for purposes not quite as noble as higher learning.

For more than a year Arkansas has sanctioned casinos at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and the Southland dog track in West Memphis.

We don't call what happens there gambling, of course. That would be immoral and illegal. We refer to electronic games of skill.

To try to keep these racetracks viable and to preserve the broader tourism benefits for their communities — worthy purposes, to be sure — our Legislature has circumvented the state Constitution.

It has let the horse and dog tracks offer blackjack without live dealers, but virtual ones. Players don't get cards, but electronic images of cards.

These places offer slot machines, but skill-based ones, you see. These contraptions require that you pull that arm a second time after you've locked in something on the screen from the first pull. Let's say you choose with your clever skill to lock in a cherry on the bar after the first pull. Then if the second pull produces a second cherry on the bar, then — presto — you have skilled yourself into financial gain.

Actually, these devices don't have arms anymore. They have buttons. So we can't call them one-armed bandits.

I have nothing against these places, or the public purpose. What I oppose is the euphemism and the charade. And I abhor the breathtaking hypocrisy of acting as if it's an affront to our sensibilities, indeed our very decency, that someone wants to sell lottery tickets so that more people in our state can go to college.

We profess worry that our poor people will squander their too-meager resources on a lottery. Why, then, don't we worry about them when they're sitting all day at a variation of a slot machine?

I'm not saying the worry is wrong. I'm saying it's inconsistent.

What we ought to do is let Oaklawn and Southland call their casinos what they are, and operate them fully as such. Then we ought to start a lottery to try to stimulate both college attendance and, more importantly, college retention. We have less a problem in Arkansas with people going to college than with people staying in college.

You hear practical arguments against this lottery. There is this notion that we'll find ourselves with gaming devices galore that will turn all our convenience stores into casinos. There is this other notion that, if we approve this lottery, the Legislature would stop funding existing scholarships out of general revenue and we would have accomplished nothing more than a shell game.

That will be up to your elected state legislators. This is a simple amendment that leaves the enabling details to the Legislature. If those concerns come to pass, it won't be the fault of the amendment or the voters. It'll be the fault of your legislators and whatever regulatory system they provide.

Halter says he'll raise holy heck if legislators try to cut existing scholarship funding.

Also left to legislation and regulation will be the nature and scope of the scholarships. Most likely they'll resemble Georgia's pacesetting HOPE scholarships, which provide aid to any legal state resident maintaining a grade point average and a reasonable course load toward graduation.

Halter says he'd like some secondary programs, such as for adults, or based on need, or to stimulate study in science, technology, math and engineering. But he stresses that will not be up to him, but to legislators or their designees.

Halter says his canvassers collected “tens of thousands” of signatures on Super Tuesday. He says they will be back at polling places for the regular May primaries “if needed.”

I'd sign again if I could. One stroke of the pen would be for education. The other would be against hypocrisy.


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