Lottery groups gear up for election campaign


Sunday, April 6th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Debate over a statewide lottery will soon shift from the Capitol to the airwaves as supporters and opponents gear up election campaigns prior to a likely vote of the people in September.

The Oklahoma House gave final approval last week to scheduling a vote on an education lottery, the key to Gov. Brad Henry's legislative program to raise new revenue for financially ailing public schools.

Supporters, including the pro-lottery group Citizens for a Better Oklahoma, said Henry is expected to actively campaign for the lottery through personal appearances and appeals across the state.

"We expect him to be heavily involved, and we expect to be heavily involved with him," said a spokesman, Mike Carrier. Supporters expect to spend up to $3 million on the campaign.

"I think you'll see every form of campaign system in existence put into play, from voter outreach to television ads," Carrier said.

A poll conducted for the group in February showed up to 70 percent of Oklahomans support an education lottery. Henry has said it could raise up to $300 million a year, but supporters said only about $100 million will be available for education.

Opponents, including Oklahomans for Good Government-No Lottery, said a coalition of religious, business, government and education groups will mount a grass-roots campaign to defeat the lottery similar to the one that killed a lottery plan in 1994.

"Our job is the toughest job in the world, and that's educating the people," said Rep. Forrest Claunch, R-Midwest City, chairman of the anti-lottery group and one of the lottery's staunchest opponents in the Legislature.

Polls conducted prior to the 1994 vote also showed 70 percent of Oklahomans favored a lottery, but it was defeated by 60 percent of the voters.

"The reason was we got the voters to the polls," Claunch said. "Once they find out what the lottery is all about, they're going to say no."

The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma said states with lotteries and other forms of gambling also have higher rates of bankruptcy, crime, divorce and other social and economic problems.

"We have very strong moral convictions about it," said the Rev. Ray Sanders, spokesman for the group. "We have the pulpit, and we're going to mobilize the parishioners."

The Oklahoma Education Association, which supported sending the lottery to a vote of the people, has not taken a position on the plan, said President Carolyn Crowder.

Lottery revenue will not be available until late 2004 at the earliest, too late to meet public education's immediate needs, Crowder said.

"Our concentration right now is to push for our legislators to adopt a new revenue stream that can take effect sooner," she said.

If approved by voters, Oklahoma will become the 40th state to authorize a statewide lottery. Of the states bordering Oklahoma, only Arkansas does not have a lottery.

Nationwide last year, lotteries generated $42.4 billion in sales, a 9.1 percent increase over the previous year, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, a nonprofit professional group to which every lottery in North America belongs.

Government-sponsored drawings are offered in 38 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. A lottery recently authorized in Tennessee has not yet started up.

The South Carolina Education Lottery began selling tickets on Jan. 7, 2002, after fierce public debate in which opponents referred to lotteries as "the crack cocaine of gambling," said Tara Robertson, the agency's public relations manager.

The plan was approved by 54 percent of voters.

"We're in the Bible belt," Robertson said. "Is their still opposition? Yes. There is still skepticism."

South Carolina officials have countered criticism by stressing that the lottery provides fun and entertainment for players and created $80.4 million for education in its first six months.

With a population of about 4 million, larger than Oklahoma's 3.46 million, the South Carolina lottery averages between $17 million to $18 million in sales each week.

Money has been used for college scholarships, the purchase of more than 200 school buses, teacher improvement programs and improving technology at colleges and universities, Robertson said.

The state started selling tickets just six months after the lottery was authorized, half the typical startup time.

"As we were still launching games, we were still hiring people," Robertson said. "It is a tedious process. We were just on a fast track."

Oklahoma's lottery plan sets aside 45 percent of net proceeds for public schools and 45 percent for higher education scholarships and other programs.

Another 5 percent would go to a fund to encourage school consolidation and 5 percent would go to the Oklahoma Teacher Retirement System.

The proposal contains language to prevent the sale of lottery tickets to minors and earmarks $500,000 a year for programs to combat compulsive gambling.

The bill creates the seven-member Oklahoma Lottery Commission, which would be authorized to issue bonds for up to $10 million for initial expenses of startup, administration and operation, to be repaid from future lottery revenues.

Under the bill, 35 percent of lottery proceeds would go into a fund that would be appropriated by the Legislature for education purposes. The first two years, 30 percent would be earmarked for education.

Businesses that sell lottery tickets would receive between 2 percent and 5 percent of lottery sales.

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On the Net:

The North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries at http://www.naspl.org

South Carolina Education Lottery at http://www.sceducationlottery.com

Oklahoma Legislature at http://www.lsb.state.ok.us

Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma at http://www.bgco.org