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Church groups pose roadblock to lottery plan

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Church groups are flexing their political muscle to block legislation that would send a statewide lottery plan to a vote of the people.

Ministers and their parishioners inundated lawmakers with telephone calls and e-mails hours before a vote on the proposal in the Oklahoma House. The lobbying effort helped to soften support and forced the plan's backers to delay the vote.

Lawmakers return to work Monday, but House leaders say they will not seek a vote until they are sure they have enough support to send the education lottery to a statewide referendum.

``I'm frustrated with the church groups,'' said the measure's author, Rep. Ron Kirby, D-Lawton. Kirby said faith-based organizations, including the 750,000-member Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, played a role in dissuading some lawmakers from voting for the plan.

``We are extremely frustrated that people who are supposedly elected to do what the people of Oklahoma want are spitting in the face of Oklahomans who want to vote on this,'' said Mike Carrier of Citizens for a Better Oklahoma, a pro-lottery group.

He said a poll commissioned by the group showed that 90 percent of Oklahomans want an opportunity to vote on the lottery issue.

Kirby predicted Oklahomans eventually will vote on a lottery plan and said church groups are wasting their time.

``You shouldn't be using your bullets right now. It should be used when it goes to a vote of the people,'' Kirby said.

But ministers said they are united in their efforts to block the lottery measure from going to a vote of the people.

``There's not a right way to do a wrong thing,'' said the Rev. Ray Sanders, spokesman for the Baptist General Convention.

``We feel what Oklahoma needs is education about the lottery, not a lottery for education. It's just flat-out harmful to people.''

The Rev. Lonnie Latham of the South Tulsa Baptist Church said many people don't want the state to move toward a lottery.

``It seems to have stirred up a lot of hearts and minds to think about where we're going.''

Postponement of the vote was a political setback for Gov. Brad Henry, who supported a lottery during last year's election campaign and has said it is the only viable way to raise new revenue for financially ailing public schools.

Henry has said a lottery could raise up to $300 million a year for public education.

But faith-based groups said states with lotteries and other forms of gambling also have higher rates of bankruptcy, crime and other social and economic problems.

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission found that those with incomes less than $10,000 spend more on lottery tickets than any other income group. High school dropouts spend four times as much as college graduates.

``If the church doesn't take up for the poor and underprivileged, who is going to?'' Sanders said.

The Baptist General Convention has secured pledges from 84 members of the House and Senate to oppose the expansion of legalized gambling in the state.

But Kirby's legislation and Henry's support for a lottery has prompted several lawmakers to change their minds. They include House Speaker Larry Adair, Speaker Pro Tem Danny Hilliard and Rep. Abe Deutschendorf.

``If you believe in a democracy, you've got to trust people,'' said Deutschendorf, D-Lawton. ``I'm personally opposed to gambling. But I do feel like that's an issue the people need to vote on.''

A survey conducted by The Associated Press indicated that most Democrats in the House supported sending the measure to a statewide vote of the people while Republicans opposed it. Democrats outnumber Republicans 53-48 in the House.

The survey also indicated that the measure required some Republican support in order to pass.

Kirby said a vote on the lottery was scheduled after several Republican House members said they would support the measure. The vote was canceled after Republicans withdrew their support.

``This is the Republicans' attempt to cripple and embarrass a new governor who has done his best to work in a bipartisan manner,'' Carrier said. ``What it shows is that Republicans do not want to work in a bipartisan manner.''

House Minority Leader Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, said opposition to the lottery plan is not a partisan issue and said Republicans and Democrats share the same concerns, including whether there are enough safeguards to guarantee that revenue will be used for education.

``Whether we're talking about casino gambling or the lottery, there's widespread opposition,'' Hiett said. ``The opposition stretches across party lines and across many religious denominations.''

``Basically, it's state-run organized gambling,'' said Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin. ``It's a moral issue for me. My opinion is it's not the best way to go.''

Carrier said his group is gearing up plans to circulate an initiative petition this spring calling for a statewide vote on a lottery plan.

In the past, church groups have blocked legislation to approve liquor by the drink and pari-mutuel betting. Both issues were eventually placed on statewide election ballots and passed through the initiative petition process.

``We're ready to go,'' Carrier said. ``The Legislature has had its chance to do what is right. They're not willing to do that, so we're going to move forward.''
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