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Political campaigns gearing up for lottery vote

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The long-awaited election on a statewide education lottery is just around the corner, and political strategists are gearing up for hard-hitting, grassroots campaigns.

The lottery proposal will appear alongside other statewide ballot initiatives on Nov. 2, more than a year after the Legislature placed the issue on the ballot. A handful of lawmakers in the state House decided a series of narrow votes on the issue.

Political strategists for and against the lottery remain tightlipped about how they hope to sway the majority of Oklahomans in the next 10 weeks. But they share one basic belief: Both sides think they have the winning numbers.

Lottery supporters, led by a group called The Oklahoma Kids Count Coalition, plan to spend at least $1.5 million on advertising and literature to promote the issue, said Pat Hall, former Democratic Party chairman and a political consultant for the group.

Made up of members of Citizens for a Better Oklahoma, a group that supported legislative approval of the lottery plan, the coalition is reaching out to business and education leaders to pay for a massive media campaign that will be launched after Labor Day, Hall said.

The campaign will inform voters of the benefits of a lottery, said another consultant for the group, Mike Carrier.

``It's a solid proposal that guarantees money for education,'' Carrier said.

Opponents, including a conservative coalition, Oklahomans for Good Government, and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, will spend far less money in a neighbor-to-neighbor outreach campaign that will oppose the lottery on religious and moral grounds, said Ray Sanders, spokesman for the Baptist group.

``It will be very strong from the pulpit,'' Sanders said. ``It will be very grassroots, how moms and pops across Oklahoma feel about keeping Oklahoma grand.''

Conservative groups will also work to defeat State Question 712, the State-Tribal Gaming Act that would allow Indian tribes to offer new types of gaming machines and allow three state-licensed racetracks to offer the same electronic machines.

``We feel like it's a biblical principle,'' Sanders said. ``The churches recognize we are in the midst of a cultural war, which is tearing at the very moral fiber of our state, and are doing their part to inform their members regarding the issues.''

The education lottery was proposed by Gov. Brad Henry. It has the support of Superintendent of Education Sandy Garrett and a coalition of education groups, including the 40,000-member Oklahoma Education Association.

Supporters say the lottery will raise tens of millions of dollars for education in Oklahoma, which ranks 45 out of the 50 states in expenditures per student and is 47th in teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.

``Kids Count Coalition is anticipating $70-plus million being generated fairly rapidly,'' Hall said. Supporters have said the proposal could raise up to $300 million a year for education.

State Questions 705, the Oklahoma Education Lottery Act, and 706, the Education Lottery Trust Fund, seek voter approval of the lottery and an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution to create a so-called lockbox that would guarantee that lottery revenue would be used to fund education.

Revenue would be dedicated to early childhood, common and higher education, as well as capital improvements for education, teacher pay raises and the teacher retirement system.

``It's a diversification of revenue sources for the state that allows us to do more for school children in Oklahoma without raising taxes,'' Carrier said. ``We think that message will resonate stronger with voters as the voting deadline nears.''

Oklahomans have faced lottery proposals before. Voters rejected a lottery plan in 1994 by a margin of 60 percent. A plan to expand gaming at racetracks was rejected by a 70 percent margin in 1998.

But recent polls indicate Oklahomans would vote in favor of the education lottery and permit electronic gaming at state-licensed race tracks.

The Oklahoma Poll, sponsored by the Tulsa World and television station KOTV, found that 61 percent of Oklahomans support the lottery. The electronic gaming proposal was supported by 52 percent.

The statewide poll of 756 registered voters was taken July 8-12 by Tulsa-based Consumer Logic and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The lottery proposal has overwhelming support among state educators, said OEA vice president Becky Felts, an elementary school teacher from Tahlequah with 27 years of experience.

``Defeating these state questions is not going to stop gambling. All it's going to do is stop Oklahoma from benefiting from these dollars,'' Felts said.

Forty other states already have state-run lotteries, including border states Texas, Kansas and Missouri.

``It's time for schools to have adequate resources,'' Felts said. ``Let's find the dollars to make it happen.''
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