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Published in Print: April 21, 1999, as S.C. Lottery Proposal Advances in Legislature

S.C. Lottery Proposal Advances in Legislature

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Policymakers in South Carolina aren't willing to leave to chance a referendum authorizing a state lottery for education.

Only days after the state House agreed to turn the question over to voters in November 2000, Gov. Jim Hodges' staff and his supporters are gearing up to sell the referendum to voters across the state.

The first-term Democratic governor hopes to use the projected $150 million collected from a new state lottery each year to pay for preschool initiatives, K-12 construction and renovation, and college scholarships.

"When polled, voters have favored a lottery by well more than a majority," said Nina Brook, a spokeswoman for the governor. "The problem has been the legislature, which was reluctant to vote for it."

Reluctant until recently, that is.

Members of the House, which has a Democratic majority, voted 88-31 on April 7 to ask citizens to amend the state constitution and allow for a state lottery with proceeds earmarked for educational initiatives. Lotteries currently are illegal in South Carolina.

The Republican-majority Senate agreed to a similar action in February in a bipartisan vote of 37-8 to allow a referendum on the lottery but added a provision that would include a separate referendum to ban state-run video poker. The lottery funds would be spent for educational purposes.

The Senate, however, will likely agree to accept the House's version of the legislation, eliminating the need for a House-Senate conference, Ms. Brook of the governor's office said. Work on the lottery measure is expected to be wrapped up in late May, in plenty of time to put a question on the ballot next year.

Gov. Hodges isn't the only governor with a lottery-for-education plan in mind. Last week, the Alabama Senate voted 24-11 to ask voters to consider a referendum this year legalizing a lottery, said Carrie Kurlander, a spokeswoman for Gov. Donald Siegelman. The state House passed similar legislation earlier this month. Gov. Siegelman, like his fellow Democrat Gov. Hodges, made the lottery-for-education plan an integral part of his campaign last fall.

The Wrong Message?

If it is approved by South Carolina voters, the lottery program could be up and running by April of 2001, making the state one of 20 that use proceeds from lotteries to help finance public education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Tapping support for education is a critical concern, Ms. Brook said. A lottery would "provide resources needed for a better-quality education system," she added.

Even so, several lawmakers and education experts dispute the wisdom of paying for school programs through gambling.

"We might as well legalize whorehouses and promote cigarettes and alcohol to raise revenue," said Rep. John Graham Altman III, a Republican who attempted to block the constitutional-amendment proposal. "You are sending an incredibly bad message out to children that it may be more important for them to guess six numbers than to memorize multiplication tables."

Others contend the poorest of the poor will be encouraged to spend what little money they have on games of chance.

"You're whitewashing gambling by saying it is going to pay for education," said Elizabeth Gressette, the executive director of the independent, 6,000-member Palmetto State Teachers' Association, who agreed to discuss her personal opinion on the issue. Her organization has not taken a stand on the matter.

Moreover, Ms. Gressette said, she's worried that lottery proceeds would be allocated for items that are not geared to supporting public schools.

"In the past, the term 'education' has been stretched so thin the money isn't effective," she argued.

Political analysts say many Republicans and some Democrats hold the same views, but were reluctant to come across to voters as against education or bucking the governor.

The lottery did, in fact, surface as a crucial factor in last fall's gubernatorial race, in which Mr. Hodges upset the incumbent Republican governor, David Beasley.

Mr. Hodges campaigned on a pledge to institute a lottery with the proceeds earmarked for education. Mr. Beasley's critics said South Carolina was losing money as state residents drove over the border to Georgia to play the lottery there. Georgia's lottery finances college scholarships.

People "don't like seeing dollars going over the border to Georgia," Ms. Brook said. A lottery, she added, "is a way to raise money without raising taxes."

The lottery issue "is the crown jewel of Mr. Hodges' platform, and it would have been dangerous for Republicans to block it," said John W. Cavanaugh, a political analyst at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "They made a strategic decision to concede this particular vote to the new governor."

Over the next few weeks, Gov. Hodges will continue to build coalitions with lawmakers and work to shape the lottery legislation still being hashed out by the House and the Senate, Ms. Brook said.

"The main issue now is to get a good constitutional amendment through," she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 32, Pages 18,20

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