Got a little spare change for a down-on-its-luck state government?
That's what it's come to in Georgia -- the state rattling its tin cup in the face of every citizen via the Georgia lottery's newest offering, the Change Game, played with 25 to 99 cents.
Will Tennessee be next? Voters will decide on November 5th. A plurality of votes cast in the governor's race will be necessary to repeal the state constitutional ban on lotteries. That means more people could vote for repeal than vote against it, but the measure could still lose if there's an apathy factor and a lot of people vote for governor but skip the lottery-referendum question.
"The Tennessee Constitution is the hardest constitution to amend in the country," said Michael Nelson, a professor of political science at Rhodes and co-author of a recent book on the politics of gambling. "First, it's hard to get an amendment on the ballot. Then it has to be approved by a super majority. But [lottery proponent] Senator Steve Cohen did something shrewd and persuaded the legislature to put the lottery question right next to the governor on the ballot."
Placement on the ballot is one issue. Placement on the public agenda is a bigger one at a time when the country is at war, gambling is well-established in neighboring states, the stock market is in shambles, and the state budget has to be cobbled together in a last-minute slugfest every year.
Polls show the lottery amendment getting support that falls anywhere from 56 percent to 74 percent of eligible voters.
"If the lottery is anywhere below 60 percent, then it's in trouble," said Nelson. "In state after state, support for the lottery goes down the closer you get to the election. If it's above 65 percent, then it's in very good shape."
The somewhat complicated nature of the question -- a constitutional change as opposed to a "do you want a lottery, yes or no" -- could also be a factor.
"You would think the more complicated it looks, the more likely some voters are to say no," said Nelson.
If voters do approve the referendum, Nelson said it would be "extraordinary" but not impossible for the legislature to not follow suit and refuse to approve a lottery next year.
Alabama voters rejected a lottery by a 54-46 margin in 1999, but Nelson noted that the economy was strong and the state treasury was "pretty flush."
"Alabama shows you can beat a lottery," he said. "It doesn't show whether you can beat a lottery in economic hard times."
In fact, the issue has resurfaced in Alabama, which, like Tennessee, shares a border with Georgia. The 10-year-old Georgia lottery and HOPE Scholarships are the envy of lottery proponents. The lottery put $726 million into Georgia's education account last year and $5 billion since it began. Some 600,000 Georgia residents have received full-tuition scholarships to in-state public universities or as much as $3,000 a year for private colleges.
The so-called education lottery is a huge boon to the college-educated middle class. Tuition at public colleges is already heavily subsidized with or without a lottery. At the University of Georgia, a hot college in most surveys, out-of-state tuition is almost $15,000 a year. The financial-aid office says only 70 out-of-staters got full scholarships this fall. Georgia, like every other state, is looking out for its own. Tennessee's Bicentennial Scholars program and Mississippi's Eminent Scholars program award full-tuition scholarships to in-state students with top academic records and test scores, partly to compete with lottery-funded scholarships in Kentucky and Georgia.
With states accustomed to fighting for college students as creatively as they fight for new industry and with lotteries established in 38 states, Tennessee is late to the party. The gambling issue has lost some of its pizzazz. A big yawn could hurt both sides. Projected revenues might not materialize. On the other hand, scare tactics no longer work so well. Memphis has somehow survived and perhaps even prospered for 10 years with Tunica.
One thing that's for sure is that the lottery itself has evolved into a different animal than many people who don't regularly patronize it realize.
"When people get bored with the initial round of lottery games, the pressure on the lottery commission to come up with new and presumably more exciting things to keep that money coming into the state treasury is enormous," said Nelson.
In Georgia, that includes online games, CASH 3, CASH 4, Fantasy 5, Lotto South, Mega Millions, the Change Game, and Quick Cash Keno. The latter offering, according to the Georgia lottery Web site, is for folks who like to "linger and spend a few hours."
There is also a sizable bureaucracy. In Georgia, there are eight district lottery offices of the state commission. Although the lottery put $726 million into the education account, that was only about 30 percent of the $2.45 billion in sales.