Wednesday, November 6, 2002

SIGNS OF THE TIME:THE LOTTERY VOTE

SIGNS OF THE TIME:THE LOTTERY VOTE

Posted By on Wed, Nov 6, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Flanked by Shelby County Democratic chairman Gale Jones Carson, who added her straightforward endorsement of the lottery referendum on Tuesday’s ballot, state senator Steve Cohen, father of that initiative and its nurturer for 16 long years, warned Monday at a press conference at his Midtown residence that lottery opponents were up to skullduggery as the vote neared.

As a flashing sign in his front window behind him kept cycling from “EDUCATION LOTTERY” to “VOTE” and back again, Cohen charged that Gambling Free Tennessee, the group responsible for a well-funded campaign against the lottery this year, had been operating under the radar of the state’s election code through a shadow corporation known as GFT,Inc., which, he said, was obligated to file financial disclosures and had not done so. The organization, he said, could be a means of cloaking “illegal contributions or some they don’t want to divulge.” Casino interests he named as the most likely possibilities in the latter category, and he brandished a publication put out by Baptist opponents of the lottery which acknowledged that “gambling proponents” were also in opposition to it.

Whether tongue in cheek or not, Cohen said, “It was through divine intervention that we learned of this today [Monday] and not tomorrow.”

On Tuesday, as rains threatened to hold down voter turnout, Cohen was still on the case, gong from polling place to polling place and reporting, to his consternation, that Sycamore View Church of Christ, had a flashing sign, too, saying “VOTE NO ON LOTTERY” across the church’s marquee. “It’s digital. It works off a computer” a church secretary noted proudly, and in that sense the opposition had something of a lead on Cohen, whose own flashing sign at home had a homespun, neon look..

The polls, however, were still telling a different story, predicting by leads ranging from minute to considerable, that the lottery, whose proceeds would benefit a scholarship fund, would prevail.

Following is the editorial published in last week’s Flyer on the lottery question:

The Lottery’s a Good bet

When we made the decision back in 1990 (the second year of the Flyer's existence) to exhaustively cover the various elections of that year, we made a second, related decision: While we would neither dissemble on matters of public import nor attempt to conceal our attitude, we would not tell our readers how to vote.

We have reconsidered our nonendorsement policy from time to time but, ultimately, have found no cause to reverse it. The unexpected good service of some elected officials and the unanticipated follies of others have, in fact, underscored the soundness of our original judgment on the matter.

But the current debate over the lottery referendum on the November 5th ballot touches on matters so much larger than the specific language or limited intent of the initiative itself that we find we must have our say in the matter.

We are partly emboldened to do so because the organized secular opponents of the lottery made a cynical judgment months ago that if they could make the lottery's chief exponent for the last two decades -- state Senator Steve Cohen -- the issue and proceed to besmirch his character, they had the battle as good as won. (We're not making this up; it's in black and white in a manifesto meant to be circulated only among lottery opponents but which fortunately leaked to the outside world.)

Senator Cohen may have his foibles, like the rest of us, but we only commend his steadfast pursuit of his goal, his overcoming of intractable legislative opposition, and his good-faith willingness to refine the issue. The lottery proposal that ultimately passed the legislature stands to benefit public education, in emulation of Georgia's highly successful Hope scholarships, which are funded by that state's lottery.

Senator Cohen has argued trenchantly that the lottery debate is a reprise of those controversies that, in earlier generations, raged concerning female suffrage, integrated lunch counters, rock-and-roll, and the like. Civilization did not decline with the advent of the aforementioned; it measurably improved and strengthened itself. Cohen has persuasively disputed opponents' arguments that mainly the poor would patronize the lottery, that the sons and daughters of the middle class would be the exclusive beneficiaries of lottery-funded scholarships, or that public interest in the lottery would wane, requiring larger payoffs, more inventive offerings, and increasingly desperate efforts by the state to entice potential customers. He cites figures from the Georgia experience that indicate the reverse of all these tendencies.

The opponents of the lottery are on firmer ground when they question the extent to which the state would actually benefit financially. In truth, Tennessee's ongoing fiscal dilemma is severe enough that lottery proceeds might be a relative drop in the bucket of need. But that's no reason to let the cup pass from our lips.

As for the argument that a lottery would corrupt the state or subvert our public morals -- please. Tunica, Mississippi, a few scant miles to the south, is already catering to our citizens' gaming appetites (as has the dog track in neighboring West Memphis, Arkansas) and has so far neglected to channel the proceeds back into Tennessee education or any other publicly useful purpose.

The lottery is, in the best sense, a forward step. It is the right move at the right time for the people of Tennessee, and we think a vote for it is both positive and timely.

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