Oklahomans show two sides in election

Saturday, November 6th 2004, 4:38 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ At first glance, it looks like Oklahoma voters showed a split personality last week when they elected a host of Republicans running on moral values, while ignoring advice from the pulpit and passing state questions to expand gambling in the state.

Supporters of the gambling proposals, however, say voters largely rejected the morality argument. They opted instead, according to state Finance Director Scott Meacham, not to ignore wide-scale gaming already going on in the state without any financial benefit for education.

It was a victory for Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who made the lottery the centerpiece of his first year as governor. This year, Henry pushed through a plan to allow pari-mutuel horse race tracks to have the same electronic gaming devices that Indian casinos have.

Both issues, which passed by healthy margins, set aside gambling proceeds for education and backers and foes said that was a major factor in the outcome.

After all, education officials said, passage of State Question 640 in the 1990s choked off opportunities for new school funding by severely restricting the ability of lawmakers to raise taxes.

Disregarding the gambling issues, Oklahoma voters made a conservative statement on Tuesday, with 65 percent of them voting for President Bush and 76 percent for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

They also elected conservative Republican Tom Coburn to the U.S. Senate and gave Republicans their first majority in the state House since 1921.

So, why the vote in favor of the lottery and horse track proposals, which were fiercely opposed by many preachers?

Opponents say it was a matter of big bucks and political clout from the likes of Henry and others, including David Boren, University of Oklahoma president, who was featured in television ads promoting the lottery.

For the most part, candidates stayed out of the gambling fray. Most candidates would state their position, if asked, but did not push their opinions on voters, said Gary Jones, state Republican chairman.

Although almost all Republican lawmakers opposed the gambling referendums the past two years, ``most voters in Oklahoma did not see these as partisan issues. They were not seen as Democratic or Republican issues,'' Meacham said.

Ray Sanders, spokesman for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said his side was heavily outspent. Moreover, he said, ``we faced for the first time a collaboration between the cowboys and Indians, along with the governor. It was a hard thing to fight against.''

Sanders referred to support the horse track measure got from both horsemen and Indian tribes.

He said he believes most churchgoers voted against the proposals. ``We feel like it was a moral issue. There were standing ovations in churches when people were challenged to vote no on these issues.''

Meacham, architect of the gambling proposals, disagreed with Sanders' assessment.

``The big opposition was more from the leadership of the Baptist convention than from the individuals in the Baptist churches,'' Meacham said. ``They could not convince church members that this was morally wrong.''

He said most Oklahomans recognized that it was a question of bringing state regulation to gambling and getting money for education off the deal.

``This is not really adding to the gambling burden,'' Meacham said, adding that Oklahomans were well aware of the growing number of Indian casinos across the state _ about 80 at last count.

Estimates are that the lottery will bring in up to $150 million for education and the race track plan will produce another $71 million.

Sanders said he knows not every Baptist voted against the issues, but said the governor, a Baptist, and other Baptists on Henry's staff ``broke from their faith by even suggesting that this is a way to fund education.''

``We love him, we just think the governor has gone astray on this issue,'' he said.

Baptists have been involved for decades in fighting state ballot initiatives, contributing to the fact that Oklahoma did not repeal Prohibition until 1959 and did not allow liquor to be served by the drink in bars until after 1985.

That was a year after voters went to the polls and approved pari-mutuel wagering at horse tracks.

Antigambling forces won two victories in the 1990s, easily defeating former Gov. David Walters lottery proposal and a plan to allow casinos at race tracks. Lottery forces were outspent in 1996 and the casino gaming issue did not even have a sponsor when the vote on it occurred in 1998.

Henry said voters thought through the latest proposals and made ``a historic decision'' that will benefit schools for years to come.