Saving lottery funds for education not easy

Saturday, September 18th 2004, 5:55 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Gov. Brad Henry says a lockbox provision for his education lottery plan is tamperproof, but critics disagree and predict Oklahoma will join a long list of states that have been unable to safeguard gambling proceeds for schools.

``I think the education lottery's lockbox provision is rock solid,'' Henry said last week, looking toward the Nov. 2 vote on the issue.

``Oklahomans can go to the polls secure in the knowledge that every dollar netted by the lottery will be a new dollar for the public schools,'' the Democratic governor said. ``The lockbox guarantees there won't be any shell games that take money from education as lottery proceeds roll in.''

Rep. Forrest Claunch, R-Midwest City, leading legislative foe of the lottery, scoffs at Henry's declaration.

``It's the weakest lockbox I ever saw,'' he said.

Putting the lockbox provision in a constitutional amendment was one of Henry's biggest selling points for passing the lottery statute. Both issues will be up for a vote on the general election ballot, and the two sides are gearing for the fight.

``From the beginning, my only goal has been to generate new money for education above and beyond the current funding levels,'' Henry said. ``I knew the only way to guarantee that was to devise a lockbox that was absolutely tamperproof.

``After a lot of research, we concluded the best way to achieve that result was by a constitutional amendment because only the people, not the Legislature, can change the Oklahoma Constitution. It literally puts the issue in the people's hands.''

Claunch, however, who is heading a campaign to defeat the lottery, says the problem is that the proposed constitutional amendment does not specify what percentages of earmarked funds the various entities of education would receive.

Those are outlined in the accompanying lottery statute, which can be changed every year by the Legislature, he said.

``If they wanted to make it a real lockbox, they would have said that common education gets 45 percent, period, and higher education gets 45 percent, period,'' he said.

He said the lottery plan is written so loosely that the bulk of the money from wagering could go to any one area, such as teacher retirement, in any given year.

Under the constitutional amendment, the seven-member Equalization Board, made up of the governor and other top officials, will have to make a finding each February that the Legislature has not used lottery proceeds to replace education funding.

``If they find that they have, the Legislature is prohibited from appropriating any additional funds to education until they have replaced the funds the board finds were supplanted,'' said Scott Meacham, Henry's finance secretary.

Supporters say the plan puts political pressure both on lawmakers and the board to make sure education gets what it has coming.

``The board is very independent of the Legislature and very responsive to the public,'' Meacham said.

He said sponsors of an initiative petition calling for a gasoline tax increase to shore up bridges thought so much of the lockbox provision that they adopted similar language.

Just how much money will be available for education in the first year under the lottery plan appears to be uncertain.

Claunch says it will be a fraction of the $300 million once predicted by Henry.

Meacham said the figure will probably be as high $150 million, if Oklahomans bet as much as Texans on the lottery, or as low as $100 million, if they follow the example of Kansans.

Claunch said he doubts the figure will be anywhere near that high because he thinks Oklahomans will still be wagering in Texas and other states that have more established jackpots.

David DuVall, executive director of the 40,000-member Oklahoma Education Association, said he is aware that education has been shortchanged on lottery proceeds in other states, including Michigan and Florida.

``We feel pretty secure about it,'' he said of the Oklahoma lockbox. He said it was patterned most after Georgia's system, which he said was among the best in protecting education's traditional share of revenue.

He said the OEA, which backs the lottery, will be a watchdog at the Capitol to make sure the schools maintain their current funding level and lottery proceeds are extra.