Leader Blues

Monday, June 29, 2009

EDITORIAL >> What lottery really means

If you like gambling — lots of Arkansans clearly do — you hit the jackpot with the gambling amendment last year. The Arkansas lottery will expand the legal options to gamble far beyond what we suspect most voters expected. Only two years ago, Arkansas ranked among the two or three states where gambling was most scarce. In another two years, it will be among the states where it is most plentiful.

That is only a supposition, but see what the new gambling law has wrought in the few weeks of its existence. The speaker of the House of Representatives, who directed the drafting of the lottery enabling law, revealed this week that the law was written in a way that would allow the state lottery to ignore a 132-year-old state law that prohibited certain forms of gambling. Keno, for instance.

It was there all along if you studied pages 52 and 57 of the act, which sprang on the General Assembly in the closing days of the session this spring and was passed by both houses and signed into law within days.

It turns out that Ernie Passailaigue, who was the director of the South Carolina lottery, had privately helped the Arkansas team draft the Arkansas law. He chafed at the restrictions that the conservative South Carolina legislature put on the lottery there. The Palmetto state lawmakers forbade keno, a particularly addictive form of chance where people bet on randomly generated numbers that appear on blowing balls, either on a TV screen or from a computer. You can lose a lot of money on them fast.

As soon as the Arkansas Lottery Commission got set up it offered Passailaigue a chance to run a lottery in Arkansas for a $100,000 raise and the chance to run games that were crimes in South Carolina. He had sought the job in North Carolina when that state started a lottery in 2006, and he leaped at the sweet Arkansas offer.

The Arkansas attorney general said keno was prohibited by law, but he apparently had not read the new lottery law. Speaker Robbie Wills said the drafters first considered keeping the prohibition but then inserted words to make it and some other games prohibited by the old law lawful if the Lottery Commission wants to implement them. It just did not use the word “keno.”

Gov. Beebe said he hoped the lottery agency would not start keno because he did not think people were counting on it when they voted to legalize a lottery. The lottery agency will genuflect to the governor now, but you can be sure that eventually it will authorize every game that the law can be construed to permit. That is the history of lotteries. When lottery participation and revenues sag, the lottery will seek more glamorous games to keep the money coming in.

Passailaigue said he would hold off on keno a while until he hears from enough legislators that they wanted to legalize it. (Southland Racing Corp. will start offering keno soon at its mini-casino at West Memphis.)

Passailaigue also would like to give Arkansans a chance to play Texas Hold ’Em, a form of poker on the web. He foresees the day soon when people can sit in front of monitors in a restaurant or a bar anywhere in Arkansas, little casinos every one, and bet on the numbers every five minutes. Isn’t that what everyone in Arkansas wanted?
Progress on every front.