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Bet on a loud, controversial lottery debate

Bet on a loud, controversial lottery debate

Don’t bet that the governor’s race will be the most discussed political event in Tennessee this summer. It’s the lottery campaign that will find its way into countless sermons; that will give middle-class families visions of saving thousands of dollars in tuition; that will pit Republican heavyweights Joe Rodgers and Ted Welch against one another. And let’s face it: The pros and cons of a lottery make better dinner conversation than the gubernatorial attributes of Phil Bredesen or Van Hilleary.

Tennessee is the only Southern state without some form of legalized gambling. In November, voters can take a step toward changing that when they decide whether to uphold or lift the state constitution’s ban on lotteries. The referendum is happening because two consecutive legislatures approved resolutions calling for it. The legislative resolution that authorized the lottery needed a majority vote when it passed in 2000 and two-thirds vote when both chambers passed it last year.

The stakes are high. If voters retire the ban, the legislature probably will authorize a statewide lottery early in 2003 that would fund a scholarship program similar to the Hope Scholarship program in Georgia. That program was started in 1993 and has since provided $1.4 billion in scholarships to 657,000 Georgia college students.

If voters keep the lottery ban, Tennessee probably wouldn’t get a lottery for many more years, if ever. After all, just getting the measure on the ballot took several years of debate by the General Assembly.

So far, it appears that the anti-lottery forces are ahead of the game, having formed two organizations. One, known as the “Subcommittee to Fight the Lottery and Tell the Truth About the Lottery,” is a group of 3,000 Tennessee Baptist churches headed by Radnor Baptist Church pastor Paul Durham. The subcommittee will be funded by special church offerings and will send anti-lottery brochures, tapes and videos to Baptist churches throughout the state—a viable tactic considering that one in five Tennesseans is a member of a Baptist church.

“We believe that gambling is corrupt and that it would absolutely cause more corruption for our state,” Durham says.

The other anti-lottery organization is the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance, headed by Republican fund-raiser Joe Rodgers. Its board members include former Knoxville mayor Randy Tyree, Woodmont Hills Church of Christ pastor Rubel Shelly and Candy Phillips, the wife of Bill Phillips, deputy mayor to Mayor Bill Purcell. The Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance will work much like a normal political action committee, raising money through direct mail and special events to fund an anti-lottery advertising campaign.

“We are putting together committees in all 95 counties to educate people about a lottery, help register people to vote and help get out the vote,” says Rodgers, a former American ambassador to France. “The proponents can’t do that because they don’t have a network. We have a network.”

Meanwhile, pro-lottery forces have created a political action committee called the Tennessee Student Scholarship Lottery Coalition. That organization, chaired by Democratic state Sen. Steve Cohen of Memphis, counts among its board members Republican fund-raiser Ted Welch, lobbyist Carl Moore and Nashville businessman Walter Knestrick. But it has only recently hired as its executive director Kevin Geddings, a Washington, D.C.-area resident who headed the successful drive to pass a lottery measure in South Carolina.

“The key to our success is to communicate to citizens what this will do for education in Tennessee,” Geddings says. “With all due respect to the organizations that are fighting the lottery, we believe that there are many good people who go to church and even teach Sunday school who believe in the value that a lottery can add to education.”

Neither side claims to have raised much money yet. Durham says that the anti-lottery organizations must raise at least $1.5 million to be effective. Geddings says he doesn’t know how much his group will try to raise.

Like most other political campaigns, this one will no doubt be replete with half-truths and misleading statements. Here are some points to keep in mind:

♦ There’s no way to know how Tennesseans will vote in November. Polls have shown that more people favor a lottery than don’t. “People in Tennessee are overwhelmingly in favor of a lottery,” Welch says. But there is no way of knowing how a lottery campaign will sway public opinion, nor is there any way of knowing which people will bother to vote in a referendum. Conventional wisdom in the South used to be that voters will always approve lotteries, given the chance. Not anymore. In 1998, Don Siegelman was elected governor of Alabama, his main platform being to bring a lottery to Alabama. About a year later, the lottery proposal was rejected in a statewide referendum.

♦ Contrary to some radio talk show rhetoric, the lottery can’t help the state out of its current budget crisis. In fact, it could make the problem worse. Why? Because to get the measure through the legislature, the lottery’s House and Senate sponsors stipulated that lottery proceeds must go toward educational scholarships for a program modeled after the Hope Scholarship program in Georgia. (Under the Hope program, all Georgia students who graduate from high school with a B average or better are guaranteed a scholarship to a Georgia public college or university. Georgia has granted so many scholarships since it instituted a lottery that enrollment in Georgia public colleges and universities has markedly increased.)

Because the scholarships cover only about half of the state’s real cost for educating students, such an enrollment spike in Tennessee would only continue to increase the state’s costs for salaries and operations, not to mention new buildings. “From a public policy standpoint, having too many college students is a good problem to have,” says Tennessee comptroller John Morgan. “But just from a budgetary point of view, a lottery and a scholarship program would put more pressure on the state’s higher education budget, because it would increase enrollment.”

♦ Contrary to what lottery foes say, reversing the ban on lotteries would not open the door to the casino industry. In fact, retiring the ban on lotteries would do just the opposite. The referendum measure calls for a constitution addition saying that lifting the ban on lotteries “does not authorize games of chance associated with casinos, including but not limited to slot machines, roulette wheels and the like.” Right now, there is no such wording in the state constitution.

♦ Expect gambling businesses in other states, such as casinos in Tunica, Miss., to join the anti-lottery effort here out of a fear that a lottery in Tennessee will hurt their businesses. (After all, gambling businesses in other states formed an alliance with the religious right and lobbied against the referendum measure in the legislature.) Durham says that the existing anti-lottery organizations would under no circumstances accept money from such out-of-state gambling interests. But no laws can prohibit them from funding another anti-lottery organization that would finance an advertising campaign similar to the one by the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance. “I guarantee you that the money will flow in here from casino interests in other states to fight the lottery,” says Rep. Chris Newton, a Cleveland Republican and the sponsor of the lottery measure in the House.

♦ Because of how Article 11, Section 3 of the Tennessee Constitution is worded, the pro-lottery movement must get more votes in November than one might think. The authors of the state constitution wanted to make it especially difficult to amend it. Because of this, a constitutional change, such as the ballot measure in November, must get more “yes” votes than half of the citizens voting in the governor’s race (as opposed to more “yes” votes than “no” votes on the referendum). So if you take all the votes cast for all the gubernatorial candidates combined, divide by two and add one, that’s the number of “yes” votes that must be cast on the lottery referendum for it to pass.

♦ Even if voters lift the gambling ban, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Tennessee will get one. After all, citizens aren’t voting on whether to institute a lottery, just on whether the Constitution should allow the state to have one if the legislature votes to do so. There are several legislators who voted for the referendum who don’t know if they would vote for an actual lottery, if given a chance to do so next year. One of them is Sen. Jeff Miller, a Cleveland Republican. Miller has flip-flopped on the lottery issue over the years. “In general, I will vote the way that I will perceive that the public will have directed, but there are a lot of key points, such as the threshold for the scholarships.” Miller also says that he’s not certain what he would do if the state votes in favor of lifting the ban on the lottery while his district votes against one. “I’d have a dilemma in that situation,” he says.

♦ Lottery opponents believe that the more people discover the details of a lottery, the less they will like it, and they may be right. For example, state-run lotteries across the nation spend millions of dollars targeting minorities and poor people. In Florida, for example, the lottery spends huge resources to advertise to poor Hispanics. “If we get a lottery, it will be far easier to buy [tickets] in the poor parts of town than in the rich parts of town,” says Rodgers, who is, ironically, one of the state’s most outspoken critics of a state income tax. “There will probably be two places to buy tickets in Green Hills, but hundreds in North Nashville.”

♦ Other than the scholarships themselves, the best pro-lottery argument is that Tennesseans are already playing it anyway. “We already have a lottery in Tennessee; we just don’t get the proceeds from it,” Welch says. “A large percentage of our population already goes out of state to buy lottery tickets, so we might as well keep that money in Tennessee.” The next best argument is that a lottery is a sort of “volunteer” tax, a pitch that might work well in the Volunteer State. “I find the fact that the lottery is optional rather refreshing,” Welch says.

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