Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Vote no on lottery

Arkansas voters for the first time are offered a relatively clean proposition to start a state lottery, and it is very likely that they will take it. Polls for years have shown that most people, if not a large majority, would like to have a lottery, and the proposal pushed by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter would authorize a lottery without the deceptions and favoritism that have attended previous lottery campaigns.

The appeal of lotteries has never been mysterious. Lots of people want to play them for the pleasure of the gamble and the long chance that they will hit the jackpot and never have to work again. Others who may never buy a lottery ticket think it is a way to pay for government without taxes. Lotteries have been called a tax on stupidity, and to many that seems to be a better way to pay for government than taxing labor and entrepreneurial endeavor. Since the stupid are the principal beneficiaries of government (so the notion goes) let them pay for it.

Lotteries, however, never prove to be such manna. After states adopt lotteries, taxes go onward and, usually, upward as the need rises for government services — roads, schools, prisons, heightened law enforcement, health care. Lotteries never substitute for honest taxes, but hope springs eternal.

Proposed Amendment 3 would authorize the legislature to create an Arkansas lottery, and the net proceeds after prizes and the franchise gaming company’s ample take would fuel a college scholarship program. Halter estimates that it would produce $100 million a year. It would almost surely produce far less than that, but even if the net is only $25 million, that would help a lot of kids go to college.

It is a compelling argument for the lottery. Nearly all state lottery initiatives ride to victory on such appeals. It is public education, college scholarships or programs for the elderly — the worthiest tugs on human compassion. You just can’t be against it, although what typically happens is that state legislatures use the new revenue source to slacken existing support for the program. You may expect that the current substantial state investment in scholarships will find its way in the future to other needy programs. That is as it should be. (Yes, we know Amendment 3 purports to prevent it.)

You can’t be against a lottery for such noble purposes, but we are. We are for college scholarships, lots of them, and we don’t think there is a biblical injunction against gambling as the church crowd fighting Amendment 3 seems to believe. Maybe there is, but it should be a valuable guide for personal behavior and not a premise for lawmaking, as we have had occasion to observe on other issues in this election.

We are against Amendment 3 because it is government at its worst. Government should not be a nanny keeping its children on the straight and narrow moral path, but neither should it be the agent of their destruction. A lottery is a state-sponsored numbers racket. Some 20 percent of Americans are frequent players — all but five states have succumbed to the lottery siren call — and by far most of them are struggling people of low incomes. Not all (we confess to dropping a dollar or two ourselves in visiting other states) but most. Halter has insisted that lotteries are not regressive, and he cites sources provided by the gaming industry, but he is dead wrong as scores of studies and anyone’s casual observations can attest. Drop by the convenience store across the state line from Junction City, Ark., sometime and study the clientele. We have a well-to-do friend who makes the journey a few times every year to buy a fist of tickets for the thrill of it, but he is not typical.

Those 20 percent drop about $60 billion a year on lottery tickets. A lottery-playing household with a gross income under $13,000 a year spends an average of $645 a year on lottery, about 9 percent of its income. Like payday lenders and credit cards, the lottery preys upon the desperation of the neediest people who do not have 401(k)s to keep them secure.

Governments everywhere have to hawk their lottery products with increasing intensity and cleverness to keep the poor buying and the revenues flowing. Billboards tell people that they can build that great future with the lottery. Work, the unspoken message says, is the uncertain way.

Arkansas will be doing that in a few years, and it is a sight we contemplate with sadness.