Saturday, September 26, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Lottery fever sweeps state

Have you heard that they are going to start selling lottery tickets Monday? If you have been on the space shuttle this summer you may not know that at the stroke of midnight the first ticket will be sold ceremonially at a Murphy Corp. service station in the Chenal neighborhood of west Little Rock, and some 1,550 stores around the state will begin peddling them during the day.

It is the loudest rollout of a government program in the state’s history.

Yes, all you teabaggers out there, the lottery is a government program — a unique government program but government nonetheless. It is unique because government ordinarily is supposed to be the servant and protector of the people, although it sometimes goes astray. With the lottery, government is the predator. It operates a numbers racket that relieves people of their hard-earned dollars and redistributes them among, well, lots of people: Scientific Games and Intralot, the big gambling companies that run the lottery, some 2,000 retailers (eventually), the big and well-paid lottery bureaucracy, a raft of other contractors and suppliers and, late next year, a number of students.

Most people like the idea of a lottery or else they would not have voted overwhelmingly to authorize the state to start one. Lots of people anticipate the thrill of buying a lottery ticket and maybe striking it rich. There is a higher mathematical chance of getting hit by lightning, but there is a chance. Many may find buying scratch-off and Powerball tickets and the eventual draw games to be good family entertainment, which is the way the lottery director and chief promoter, Ernie Passailaigue, describes them. He says he doesn’t want anybody who could become addicted to it and can’t afford the addiction to buy a ticket. It is a common problem in all the 42 states that have lotteries and he doesn’t want it to happen here. His warning should take care of that problem, so we need not worry about it.

But we need to correct the record on a few matters. Passailaigue said there were only two reasons to play the lottery, to have some sheer fun and to help needy kids go to college. But if you feel compelled to buy lottery tickets to help kids go to college, we have a better suggestion. Write a check to the state Department of Higher Education and earmark it for the general scholarship fund. That way, every dime will go to scholarships. When you buy a lottery ticket, only part of the price winds up in college accounts.

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the father of the Arkansas lottery, says people should play the lottery for the sake of the kids. He says it is vital for the state’s economic development. When people spend more money on the lottery, more kids will have a chance to go to college. As the college-going rate rises, more educated youngsters will be able to contribute to the state’s economic growth. That is his theory. Passailaigue, who came here from the South Carolina lottery, ratified it.

But if that is so, why has the lottery not produced that result in South Carolina? The South Carolina lottery is supposed to be wildly successful, but in the eight years since it began, the college-going rate of South Carolina high school graduates has gone down steadily. And the South Carolina economy is a wreck. The unemployment rate there is nearly twice Arkansas’. College costs have skyrocketed in proportion to the growth in lottery revenues and scholarship assistance.

Rather than enable more poor kids to go to college, the lottery will basically subsidize the college education of more affluent youngsters. When school began this month, the state had $100 million available to help kids pay for their schooling at any public or private institution in Arkansas. It is far more than the demand, and there will be reserves again next fall, along with the guaranteed yearly appropriation.

The Constitution says the state must continue forever to provide the same amount of tax support for college scholarships after the lottery begins as before. To use all the scholarship funds that will be available next September from taxpayer and lottery proceeds, the legislature lowered the requirement for qualifying down to a C average and a mere 19 on the ACT. If you fail those, you still might qualify. And it removed entirely the income ceiling to qualify. The children of the well to do, even billionaires, will get their tuition paid starting in 2010.

So that is what your lottery purchase will get.

Our lesson for today: Have fun at the convenience store, but have no illusions about the miracle you are accomplishing.