Momentum growing for lottery plan

Sunday, November 18th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Voters answered the question of whether Oklahoma was ready for a state-sponsored lottery with a resounding ``no'' at the ballot box in 1994.

Seven years later, a new generation of supporters say it's time for the state to reconsider a lottery to give Oklahomans a chance to win millions and create a new revenue stream for public education.

``One way or another, we're going to get this on the ballot,'' said state Sen. Brad Henry, D-Shawnee.

Henry plans to reintroduce a measure that calls for a statewide referendum on whether Oklahoma should join 38 other states and the District of Columbia in sponsoring a lottery. The original bill died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

``We very well may have a little more momentum this year than we had last year,'' Henry said. ``The arguments against a state lottery are quickly growing obsolete.''

While Henry prepares to file his legislation, a group known as Citizens for a Better Oklahoma is preparing to circulate an initiative petition that calls for a statewide vote of the people on a lottery proposal in the November 2002 general election.

``We want to do something that we believe will make a dramatic improvement, and a fast improvement, in the state of Oklahoma,'' said Mike Carrier of Oklahoma City, chairman of the group.

The petition, which the group plans to circulate this spring, will propose a constitutional amendment to create a lottery whose revenues would be spent on improving public education from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Carrier said the group estimates the lottery would conservatively raise $200 million a year, of which about $80 million would be devoted to public education. The rest would be paid out in prizes and administrative costs.

Carrier said lottery revenues are desperately needed to meet what he said are more than $1 billion in capital needs at public schools in Oklahoma.

``We can put a dome on a Capitol. We can build all of these wonderful buildings at colleges. And we force our children to go to school in buildings that are dark, that are full of asbestos, that are inadequately cooled and heated. It's just absolutely ridiculous,'' he said.

Lottery supporters have been given a boost in recent weeks by the gubernatorial campaign of independent candidate Gary Richardson, a Tulsa lawyer who has proposed a lottery to support public education.

Richardson's plan, like Henry's, would dedicate a large portion of lottery revenues to the college tuition costs of qualifying Oklahoma high school graduates.

Henry's legislation also would place new emphasis on early childhood programs by dedicating revenues to pay for statewide full-day kindergarten classes.

``I think a lottery for the state of Oklahoma is a smart idea,'' said former Gov. David Walters, a Democrat who supported the lottery when it was voted on in 1994 while he was in office.

``This is a form of entertainment that is denied to our population,'' Walters said. ``We look at this as a special source of revenue that would be used to do special things.''

But opponents view public lotteries as the betrayal of the people by their government, which they say is transformed from the role of protector to predator.

``They consistently prey upon the people who can least afford to send their money,'' said Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., also a gubernatorial candidate.

``I think it really is a desperation play by people that don't believe there is any other way we can grow our state's economy. I haven't thrown in that towel yet.''

Rep. Forrest Claunch, R-Midwest City, said a problem exists when the government entices its citizens to lose money. Claunch led the fight against the lottery proposal seven years ago.

``It takes millions of people losing money on a regular basis to keep the thing afloat,'' Claunch said. ``I don't want to teach our young people that they better hope mom and dad lose money in the lottery so they can get a free college education.''

But supporters say lotteries are a popular and appealing form of entertainment enjoyed by millions of Americans.

``This industry has done so much good,'' said David Gale, executive director of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, a nonprofit professional group to which every lottery in North America belongs.

Gale said state lotteries nationwide took in $36 billion dollars last year. About 85 percent of that total was returned to the public as prizes or public spending.

On average, 55 cents of every dollar spent on a lottery ticket went to prizes and 30 cents was returned to the state for public projects, Gale said. About 10 percent went to administration and 5 percent to commission to retailers who sell lottery tickets.

``It's a huge amount of money that is generated by a relatively small industry,'' Gale said.

Largent raised eyebrows last week when he told the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce that organized crime is behind many lottery efforts. Largent said he was referring to an incident in Pennsylvania in the 1970s in which attempts were made to fix lottery drawings.

Gale said lotteries are administered by state governments to promote public scrutiny of their operations and prevent corruption.

``The integrity of the lottery games are most important,'' he said. ``I have never seen or heard anything about organized crime in this industry.''

While the lottery debate drags on, proponents say Oklahomans will continue to cross state lines and buy lottery tickets in Texas, Kansas and Missouri.

There are no exact statistics on how often that happens, but there have been some high-profile examples of Oklahomans winning big after participating in drawings in other states.

In 2000, 290 Okarche residents won $150,000 from a seven-state lottery, and 26 Tulsa airline mechanics split a $50 million pot in a multi-state lottery. In 1999, 12 Gould residents bought 120 lottery tickets in Texas and won $23 million.

The Texas Lottery Commission has collected $8.9 billion in revenue for education and other public purposes since it began operating in 1992.

``There's money being spent by Oklahomans to build schools in Texas,'' Carrier said. ``We are sick of it. We want that money kept here in Oklahoma where it can do our children some good.''

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