Wednesday, January 25, 2006

WEDNESDAY EDITORIAL >> Bill Halter's awful idea

A good rule is to beware the politician who promises big, bold new ideas for it is apt to be no more than a promise. Follow the man or woman who actually offers them.

We actually have looked forward to hearing from young Bill Halter, the Rhodes scholar who tendered his name months ago as a possible candidate for governor. No one knew much about him except the resume — a high Social Security administrator, a federal budget analyst, an economics consultant, a Stanford trustee, and a short stint as head of an ill-fated state think tank — because he had never involved himself in Arkansas politics at any level.

But there is no reason that Democrats should exclude from the governor’s race anyone but the seasoned Mike Beebe. Every Democrat should encourage competition for the nomination.

Halter said if he ran it would be a different kind of race, one based on ideas, fresh ones. Friday, Halter announced that he was indeed going to run, and he provided a sample of the bold ideas that he would introduce into Arkansas politics.

A lottery.

If that is Halter’s notion of a bold idea, save us from the stale ones. Lotteries are popular — promotion of a state lottery helped elect two Southern governors — but they are not a solution to the state’s manifold problems, and no politician who offers a lottery as a serious way to tend to the state’s shortcomings deserves our attention. Lotteries are fun for people who find some thrill in any form of gambling and a desperate hope for others, but for a state like Arkansas, where the big athletic teams never rise above the mediocre, they could provide nothing more valuable than a social diversion.

Halter said a lottery might supply as much as $250 million a year in revenue for education once the voters approved the idea and the scheme was established. Lottery proponents throw such figures around, but they are foolishly wrong.

Here’s a better figure about what a lottery would produce for the state in the first years: $30 million.
In other words, it would raise the general revenues of the state by considerably less than 1 percent. Subtract from the $30 million the cost of social and economic problems caused by the gambling and addiction rates and the lost income from other sales.

Is $30 million too low? Compare with Iowa, a rural state like Arkansas, with a population somewhat larger and more affluent but similar in demographics. Iowa started a lottery 20 years ago and after years of hustling more and more games to entice more people into buying lottery tickets, the state government raised the total receipts from all the lottery games in 2005 to $210 million.

After paying franchise operators, prize-winners and expenses, the state netted $51 million for state programs, the largest sum in its history.

Lotteries are sold nearly everywhere on the idea that the net proceeds would improve education without people having to pay higher taxes. But that rarely happens. The schools tend to get a dwindling share of tax revenues after lotteries, so that they wind up no better and often worse than before.
No, a lottery is not a bold idea or even a good one.

Let us not give up on Mr. Halter just yet, but let him know that expectations are higher than that.