Short on cash, states like Oklahoma turn to lotteries

Saturday, March 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Several states are ready to bet on a lottery to raise cash to cover their deepening debts, overlooking outrage from religious groups and anti-gambling forces.

It's still a long shot in some places, but budget problems are so severe that many lawmakers feel they have little choice. The Oklahoma House, where opposition has been strong, approved a lottery plan Tuesday and the Senate later approved a constitutional amendment earmarking lottery proceeds for education.

``We cannot economize our way to excellence,'' Gov. Brad Henry said in his state of the state speech. ``We need revenue - revenue dedicated solely to education.''

Budget shortfalls have prompted Henry and North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley to propose new lotteries to increase education spending, despite moral opposition from voters and politicians.

Thirty-eight states already have lotteries, and some in the remaining 12 states feel they have been left behind. Oklahoma, North Carolina and North Dakota are considering new lotteries.

Several other states with existing games are hoping to increase their take. They are joining multi-state games to bring in extra money, bolster lagging lottery sales, meet rising costs for services or keep customers from crossing state lines to buy tickets.

Henry, who's addressing a $600 million projected shortfall next fiscal year, asked the Legislature to put a lottery on the ballot that he says will raise up to $300 million a year for schools.

About $248 million has been cut from Oklahoma schools over the past two years, meaning fewer sports teams, clerical staff filling in as substitutes and superintendents answering their own phones.

Henry has bet correctly so far that backing from the governor's mansion would overcome opposition from religious groups and conservatives. He persuaded three Republicans to switch to his side before the state House approved his plan 52-49 on a reconsideration vote Tuesday.

Easley, North Carolina's first governor to support a lottery, says a numbers game can provide enough revenue to improve the state's schools despite slumping tax collections. State revenues have come in nearly $2.5 billion below projections the past two years.

Easley argues that North Carolinians buying lottery tickets in Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina are paying to improve education in those states, at the expense of schools inside the state line.

``All our competitive states, our neighboring states, have a source of revenue for education that North Carolina does not have,'' Easley said. ``So (legislators) have one arm tied behind their back ... trying to pay for your kids education.''

But the North Carolina House defeated Easley's plan last year, and the chamber this year is evenly split between Republicans, who adamantly oppose a lottery, and Democrats.

A new governor in Vermont has proponents there optimistic about adding Powerball to the games the state already offers. Gov. Jim Douglas in January replaced Howard Dean, a Democratic presidential candidate who repeatedly threatened to veto lottery expansions during his 11 years as governor.

Douglas, confronted by a relatively modest $30 million shortfall, supports a lottery to increase education funding and to keep jackpot-seeking Vermonters from buying tickets and other convenience store items in adjacent New Hampshire, spokesman Jason Gibbs said.

Vermont wants the additional revenue to keep up with the rising costs of education, including implementing the federal Leave No Child Behind Act, estimated to cost $100 million.

``What will help pass it eventually is that we need additional revenue, and this is a sort of painless way to raise more revenue,'' said Vermont Rep. Michael Obuchowski, a lottery supporter.

The Vermont House endorsed the measure last month.

Vermont would join Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Washington as recent new members to multi-state games. Now, only five lottery states are not members of one of the huge jackpot games.

Surrounded on all sides by states offering Powerball, officials in North Dakota got tired of watching citizens driving to Minnesota or South Dakota to buy chances at the game's hefty jackpots.

North Dakotans approved a constitutional amendment in November requiring the state, which currently has no lottery, to offer a multi-state game.

Some lottery opponents feel anger and anguish over the prospect of gambling in their states.

``What we feel is that Oklahoma needs an education about the lottery, not a lottery for education,'' said the Rev. Ray E. Sanders with the Oklahoma Baptist Convention. ``A lottery comes with a wake of social and economic ills. Wherever a lottery or gambling enters a state, divorce, crime, bankruptcies and suicides all increase.

``For that reason alone, people of faith must recognize that while the lottery may raise money, it also comes at a great social cost.''

In North Dakota, economic arguments carried the day.

``We overcame the moral resistance and let the pragmatic arguments come into play,'' said Rep. Andy Maragos, R-Minot. ``It came down to whether the moral implications were more important or whether the economic benefit we're missing was more important.''