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Raffle ruckus revived as lottery vote nears

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Senate has approved one form of a lottery _ charity raffles _ and is nearing a vote on a referendum for a statewide lottery that would benefit education.

The chances of either issue getting through the House appear to be dubious, however, based on recent history and opposition from leaders of the 101-member legislative body.

Last week, the Senate voted 28-16 to send Sen. Frank Shurden's raffle bill to the House, where it has died in recent years.

Shurden, D-Henryetta, said an unofficial interpretation of Oklahoma's antigambling laws by the attorney general's office has produced a ``ridiculous'' situation whereby charity raffles are illegal and gambling is wide open at so-called Indian casinos.

Shurden said it does not make sense to subject Boy Scouts, fire fighters and other nonprofit groups to the threat of felony charges for raising funds for a good purpose through raffles.

During last week's debate on the Senate floor, Shurden drew support from Sen. Brad Henry, D-Shawnee, who is the author of a lottery plan that was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Henry, an attorney, said he made a study of federal rulings on lottery laws as they apply to Indian gambling and ``I believe the attorney general's office is just plain wrong'' in its arguments that allowing raffles or lotteries would lead to casino gambling on Indian land.

The attorney general's office has not issued an official opinion on raffles, but in 1998, senior Assistant Attorney General Neal Leader wrote Sen. Jim Dunlap, R-Bartlesville, that raffles are illegal lotteries if tickets are sold and prizes are awarded based on chance.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson followed up in 1999 by writing House Rules Committee Chairman Russ Roach warning that legalizing raffles could lead to a statewide lottery conducted by Indians from which the state would derive no revenue.

Edmondson went on to list ways that charities could continue to conduct raffles through ``voluntary'' contributions. Under his guidelines, a charity would have to give a ticket to anyone who asks for one, even if there is no contribution.

Supporters of Shurden's bill said the AG's guidelines send the wrong message. ``We're teaching young people and adults how to get around the law,'' said Sen. Johnnie Crutchfield, D-Ardmore. ``In the process,'' he said, ``we're teaching them disrespect for the law.''

Roach, D-Tulsa, said he expects the Shurden measure will again be assigned to his committee by House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell, a lottery opponent.

Roach said he remains leery of passing anything that could further open up Indian gambling and also wondered if a law change is needed.

``I'm not aware of anyone being prosecuted for engaging in a nonprofit raffle,'' he said.

Roach, however, said he needed to talk to legal staff and others before deciding on whether to hear the latest raffle bill.

``I'm not excited about accidentally opening the door any further to Indian gambling,'' he said. ``At the same time, I am distressed at the disparity that goes on between what the civic groups are able to do and what the tribes are doing.''

Rep. Forest Claunch, R-Del City, said he sees little chance of a lottery passing either the House or a statewide vote, despite polls that consistently show Oklahomans like the idea.

Claunch was a leader of a group that was instrumental in defeating a lottery plan submitted to voters in 1994.

Henry said his lottery plan is beginning to gain support from educators but still ``faces a very difficult road in the House.''

``Right now, I can't tell you where it is going to go,'' he said. ``All I can really hope for is that we can pass it in the Senate and the momentum will continue to build to let the people vote on the issue.''

The lottery question is expected to be an issue during the 2002 election, whether or not Henry's bill passes.

In addition to Henry, Independent Gary Richardson has endorsed a lottery as part of his gubernatorial campaign.

Also, a group known as Citizens for a Better Oklahoma has been formed to conduct an initiative petition drive in hopes of putting a lottery question on the November general election ballot.
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