Guest editorial

The Lottery vs. Arkansas

— SOME THOUGHTS are just too pertinent not to pass on. Like those expressed in an open letter to the increasingly well known Ernest Passailaigue, executive director of this state's still a-borning numbers game, aka the Arkansas Lottery.

The open letter came from Ginny Blankenship, a policy wonk who hangs her hat at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and, boy, does she ever advocate. It's hard to resist quoting her at length. Her theme: the dismaying effect of a lottery on the fraying social fabric of this small, once proud state. Those fancy salaries being handed out are just a small part of it; this thing has only begun to metastasize. Or as Ms. Blankenship notes in her open letter/broadside addressed to Dear Mr. Passailaigue:

" . . . Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF) did a study last year estimating the amount of revenue that state-sponsored gambling would generate in Arkansas. Our figure was a bit off from yours, by about $38.5 million, probably because we did not compare Arkansas to other states with the most addictive (and lucrative) forms of government gambling, like video lottery terminals (VLTs). Yousee, long before you got here, lottery proponents promised Arkansas voters that they would never allow these things in our state.

"Now that this promise appears well on its way to being broken ("monitor" games are only different from VLTs in semantics-the lottery industry has tried to sneak that one past voters here more than once), we're even more concerned about how the lottery is marketed and whom it is marketed to. Will kids be allowed or even encouraged to play, as is happening in many other states?

"As you may be aware, decades of research across the country have also shown that state lotteries are disproportionately targeted to and played by lowincome and black communities. With over half of Arkansans classified as lowincome (even more so in black communities), we've got enough problems with poverty and racial disparities to begin with. If the ultimate goal of the lottery is to increase our collective wealth by improving education in Arkansas, why risk preying on the half of the state who can least afford it?

"In fact, why market it at all? Everyone who reads the newspaper already knows that they'll be able to buy tickets by the time football season is over. Local news will let us know as soon as the doors are open. Cutting out the ad man would save you a lot of money, too, since every other lottery state has had to spend approximately 70 percent of ticket sales on marketing, prizes, and administration to just to keep the thing running.

"Here's another potential cost-saver: Gambling addictions are already on the rise nationwide-especially among teenagers-driving people even deeper into poverty, bankruptcy, or government dependence. Meanwhile, our lottery's lowest-paid support staff will make more money than our state's entire budget forgambling-related problems, which is currently $0.

"Some have suggested that part of the lottery proceeds should go toward such treatment programs, as more and more people will now inevitably become hooked on government-backed keno, online poker, or video games in nearly every restaurant and store in town. If we don't exacerbate gambling problems by plastering ads across our beautiful state, that could save you some money, too.

"Finally, in most states with a lottery, state funding for education has essentially been supplanted, and colleges have [raised] their tuitions so high and so fast that the value of students' lottery scholarships [has] been completely eroded. There also appears to be no correlation between states' lottery ticket sales and their number of college graduates and good-paying jobs.

"Just some things to think about. Fortunately, the state already has well over $50 million in unclaimed college scholarships in the bank, so we're in no rush to get the lottery off the ground and can take our time in getting it right." SOMEHOW we don't think Director Passailaigue, or The Hon. Ray Thornton and the rest of the notables on the lottery commission, or the gambling lobby in general, which might be summed up as all the folks hoping to make some money off the lottery, will think about such things. At least not seriously. Instead they've got other things on their minds-mainly money, money, money. Spending it, collecting it (often enough from those who can least afford to gamble), and doing all that in a big hurry. Who cares about haste making waste when all this money is about to roll in? Mr. Passailaigue says it's going to be a transcendent sight, which lets you know what his idea of transcendence is.

Something about her tone tells us that Ginny Blankenship's agenda and the lottery commission's don't quite mesh. Their objectives are quite different: She's out to protect the lottery's easiest marks-the poor and ignorant, and especially the young and most easily misled of them. While the lottery, by its very nature, is out to take them.

We voted this damnable thing in, all of us did, and now we must live with it. For here the people rule (Regnat Populus!) and not always wisely. But thanks to the Ginny Blankenships of this state, and the Jerry Coxes (he's with the Arkansas Family Council), at least we can't pretend we know not what we do. And we can continue to protest every new, arrogant intrusion of this state-run racket on our children, our families, our self-respect, even on our landscape.

Yes, we lost the election over the lottery, those of us who could see this coming, and we lost it big. But some of us-like Ginny Blankenship and Jerry Cox-have only begun to fight. It's not too early to start thinking about how to repeal or at least restrict this fast-approaching, slimy, spirit-eroding thing. It can be done. Because the people are starting to catch on.

Editorial, Pages 10 on 07/27/2009

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