COHEN'S LOTTERY PROPOSAL PASSES THE BIG TEST

COHEN'S LOTTERY PROPOSAL PASSES THE BIG TEST

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"It's interesting that, just as we take the turn into the 21st Century, in the Tennessee legislature we've finally caught up with the 20th."

That was State Senator Steve Cohen on the comfortable predicament he is now in, with the state Senate having finally bought the lottery-referendum resolution he's been vending in one form or another for 16 years, and with the state House poised to give an almost certain Yes next week.

The self-same House wasted no time Thursday in setting up for action. The body suspended its rules to read the lottery resolution for the first time Thursday, putting the decisive third reading and the final vote -- when the measure needs a two-thirds majority for passage -- on the calendar for next Wednesday.

Speaker Jimmy Naifeh said, "From a preliminary count it looks like there should be sufficient votes for the lottery resolution to pass the House."

Chris Newton (R-Cleveland) said he is confident the House will have the 66 votes. "We want more than that,Ó he said. ÒWe want a resounding voice from the peopleÕs House. Then we can go on with the other issues without this lingering over everything else."

Lottery opponents, meanwhile, have all but given up the ghost. "The momentum is with them right now. I don't think there is any doubt that the votes are there," said Rep. Bobby Wood (R-Harrison).

Gov. Don Sundquist has said he will sign the lottery resolution as soon as it passed and gets to his desk. Upon the expected House approval next week and the governor's signature, there would be set in course a statewide vote on the lottery to be held at the same time as the November 2002 governor's race.

A majority of people voting in the governor's race would be required to approve the measure, which, in simplest terms, amends the constitution, removing the ban on holding lotteries. The resolution specifies that revenue from the lottery would go toward educational purposes.

The proceeds, which could run as much as $200 million annually, would go first to college scholarships for Tennessee youths to attend Tennessee schools. Any money left over would be used for school construction and early childhood learning programs.

Senate Was Big Hurdle

The big obstacle, of course, was overcome on Wednesday, when the Senate approved the referendum by the bare-minimum vote of 22-11 -- getting the requisite two-thirds needed to get the referendum on the November 2002 ballot.

Wednesday's Senate vote saw the lottery withstand some furious last-minute lobbing against it by both gambling forces based in Tunica, Mississippi, and conservative religious groups -- an indication of what to expect when the statewide vote occurs next year. But Cohen was content just now to bask in the present. "This is a victory for the people of Tennessee. I guess time is on my side," said the euphoric senator after the Senate vote.

The lottery resolution was passed by a majority vote of both houses last year, and this year needed a two-thirds vote in the Senate and House.

Ironically enough, given the number of years it has taken for the lottery resolution to get to this point, actual debate Wednesday lasted only about an hour. Opponents focused on the dangers of gambling and warned that the resolution, if approved, cou ld lead to a return of corrupt bingo games of the sort that were banned after the Rocky Top scandals a decade ago.

Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) said the lottery would be "injurious to the people." He said for the state to use lottery proceeds for education, "We would have to prostitute the state of Tennessee. We would have to drag our skirts in the dirt. . . .[W]e would have to say to children . . .'When you get old enough, you should buy a ticket. It will get you a fortune for nothing overnight.'"

And Sen. Roy Herron (D-Dresden) suggested during debate that an Attorney General's opinion lef it unclear whether the Cohen resolution would permit casinos.

Cohen and his supporters warned against fear tactics and stressed that Tennesseans were mature enough to make a decision on the measure. "I ask 21 others to join me and cast the most important vote of your life to give the people of Tennessee the right to vote to help our schools and help our children.," Cohen said before the Sernate vote.

And Sen. Ward Crutchfield (D-Chattanooga) asked, "In the final analysis, if your constituents are smart enough to elect you, why aren't they smart enough to vote for this?"

Result Preordained?

In the wake of his triumph, Cohen said that he had resisted the temptation to roll the bill until next week, as a sometimes wavering supporter, Sen. Doug Jackson (D-Dickson), had suggested. "I knew that Lincoln Davis [D-Pall Mall] would be gone on Thursday, and I didn't want to let things hang over the weekend," said Cohen, noting that he had asked that the rules be suspended to permit both a second and third reading this week.

Cohen said the 22 Yes votes were exactly the ones he expected, and so were the 11 No votes. "Really, the vote total was decided in last year's electons, and really on filing deadline. I knew that [new Shelby County Republican senator] Mark Norris would vote for it, and I knew that either [Democratic winner] Larry Trailor [Republican loser] Howard Wall in their [Murfreesboro-area] race would be for it. So it was set back then, with those two seats."

Cohen professed disappointment in the resistance to his resolution by Senator Herron. who was one of the leaders of the opposition to the bill but, Cohen said, had consistently supported a virtually identifical measure while a member of the House several years ago.

In the end, the lottery may have benefitted from the intense debate caused by Gov. Sundquist's call over the last two years for a state income tax. Opponents insisted that any new tax required a vote by the people, and they fell to looking for an alternative. Both circumstances helped the lottery proposal .

As State Senator Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County, perhaps the most arch of the Senate's arch conservatives and a bitter foe of the income tax, said in Memphis this weekend, where she attended the annual Shelby County Republican Lincoln Day dinner: "In American you let the people vote. That works for the income tax, and it works for the lottery."

Cohen could count on several such Republican votes to go with those from his Democratic base.

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