Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Initiatives good and bad

Arkansas is one of only 24 states that have an initiative process that allows the citizenry to write and enact laws, and it makes it rather hard by requiring the signatures of a lot of voters to put a proposal on the ballot. The high threshold 8 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election is supposed to keep everyone with a rash or simply nutty idea from putting it before voters who do not have the time to inform themselves.

The wisdom of that threshold proved itself again Monday when the backers of a proposed act to punish immigrants failed to get the required 62,000 signatures to put it on the November ballot. They fell far short of petition requirements, which might be poor organization but which we like to think reflected the good judgment of voters. The short but far too simple explanation of the proposal was that it would prevent people who are in the country illegally from receiving public benefits.

Gov. Beebe pointed out that much of the nightmarishly long proposition was already state or federal law and if it were enacted the state would be saddled with duplicative or in some cases conflicting laws. What it would have done is require the state government to establish new bureaucracies at a high cost to taxpayers to try to enforce what the federal government does or fails to do. The sponsors wanted to capture and inflame the hysteria in some quarters over the growing number of Hispanic workers.

Now people in the voting booth this fall will not have to parse that bewildering proposition to figure out if it would be good public policy. They would not have much chance, of course, because you are allowed three minutes in the booth, but the reasoning behind these propositions is that people will simply vote their gut emotions: Illegal immigrants? Vote against them.

A similar rationale lies behind two other initiative propositions that probably will make it on the ballot: an act to prevent unmarried couples from adopting children or serving as foster parents and a constitutional amendment to legalize lotteries and other forms of gambling that the legislature might want to authorize. The well-heeled lottery campaign raised far more signatures than are required and is almost certain to be on the ballot. We will have for the first time a straight up-or-down vote on a lottery.

The adoption and foster-parenting act fell well short of the legal signatures, but a loophole in the initiative and referendum law perhaps 15,000 of the signatures are illegal gives them a 30-day hiatus to recover and get the extra signatures to get it certified to the ballot.

The adoption/foster-parenting proposition counts on popular loathing for gays and lesbians. The backers try to put an anti-gay proposal (example: gay marriage) on the ballot every two years. It gets out a good conservative vote.

This one is particularly harmful because it would restrict the choices that state child-welfare people can make for thousands of neglected children. The state has a shortage of willing adoptive and foster parents and a record of abuse. The state has a history of scandalous treatment of foster children, by heterosexual custodians, but this would make it illegal to put children in the homes of caring people if for some reason they do not have a valid marriage license. Though the ideal would be stable married couples, studies have shown that children thrive emotionally in the homes of unmarried couples. The proposal would remove that option for desperate children.

We think that voters ultimately will side with the children and not with the social ideologues.

The lottery amendment is apt to pass. The campaign will be well financed and the net proceeds of the lottery are for a purpose that no one can be against: college scholarships. Lotteries raise a moral issue: Should state government be in the business of encouraging people, particularly the poor, to gamble their money on a long shot at instant wealth, even if youngsters will benefit from the net proceeds? Everyone will act upon his or her own moral compass about that. Our guess, based on opinion polls, is that most voters will say yes. Except for a few and the very poor, small-time gambling is a harmless vice.

This lottery proposition raises a couple of troubling issues. First, the sponsors vastly overstate the proceeds that will flow to the colleges. But lottery backers, which include the gaming industry, always overstate the proceeds. It will not be $100 million a year, but it could be $40 million to $50 million. Having our own lottery will keep some capital in the state because people who want to buy tickets will not have to cross the state line. Of course, part of the proceeds will flow out of Arkansas to the gaming contractors who will get the business.

A larger issue for some people may be the breadth of the proposition. The drafters chose not to define a lottery, which means that the amendment would repeal the current constitutional prohibition against gambling. The courts have interpreted lotteries broadly to mean gambling. If the legislature subsequently chose to legalize casinos, as it once did (Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller vetoed the bill in 1969), the cloud over its legality would be removed.

This is still not the clean, simple initiative to authorize a state-run lottery that lots of people wanted. When the gambling industry is involved, nothing is ever simple and clean. But the issues will be clearly explicated this time and for the first time since 1964 we should have a clear expression from the voters on legalized gambling.