Opinion » Viewpoint

Lottery Yes!

The prime mover for a Tennessee lottery answers a critic.



The state lottery in Georgia, upon which Tennessee's constitutional provision is modeled, has been hailed as the finest scholarship program in the country and the best constitutional lottery provision as well. Tens of thousands of Georgia students have tuition paid through the HOPE scholarship and then join the state's work force, which fuels Georgia's economic engine for the 21st century.

Seventy-five percent of the best and brightest students in Georgia now attend Georgia universities rather than the 25 percent prior to the establishment of the HOPE program. SAT scores have risen by 11 percent since the inception of HOPE, and pre-kindergarten programs have provided an early start to children in reading and learning -- and a great start toward a HOPE scholarship.

Critic Nell Levin, a state income-tax advocate, missed the point when she wrote in the Flyer last week that "a lottery creates few jobs and no useful product." It creates hundreds of thousands of jobs and better workers who enter the work force debt-free because of the proceeds of the lottery. Further, when people go out of state to buy lottery tickets they often purchase groceries, alcohol, and gasoline. If those people buy their products in Tennessee, they contribute to Tennessee's economy and pay Tennessee taxes.

Levin suggests that the lottery will not solve Tennessee's revenue problems. On this she is right, of course; it will also not cure cancer, malaria, or whooping cough.

It took 17 years to get the lottery on the ballot in Tennessee. Its failure to do so did not help the cause of those who advocate tax reform, and its passage this year will not hinder them either. A lottery isn't a tax. It is a voluntary form of funding scholarships and participating in a game, which is a form of entertainment. People play the lottery in approximately the same proportions as their income levels. In fact, the typical player is middle income and a high school graduate.

Tennessee's program has not yet been developed, but I would advocate not allowing Pell grants to be used, as they can be in Georgia, as a credit against lottery scholarships. This would benefit lower-income families while not disadvantaging students from other income levels.

Ours will be one of only three states whose constitutional provision for a lottery mandates education spending on new and specific programs. The amendment requires that the money supplement, not supplant, education funding.

Tennessee may be late getting into the lottery game, but a study by the state's Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations estimates we will net $300 million for college scholarships and post-secondary technical and educational improvement opportunities, in addition to pre-kindergarten and after-school programs and K-12 capital construction improvements.

We might have made more had we started earlier, but for right now and the past 17 years we have gotten nothing. It is like buying a stock for a penny a share, which climbs to 300 million in the first year. If it should fall to 250 or 200 million, we still bought it for a penny. That is a pretty good investment for Tennessee shareholders whose dividend will be a better-educated work force and citizenry.

I have always played the lottery wherever I go and have won a few small returns. I enjoyed picking the numbers and look forward to seeing the winning numbers. My only regret is that I have helped other states meet their needs rather than my own state.

I look forward to making a voluntary contribution to a Tennessee lottery game and know Tennessee's future will be better for it. It is a sure-fire winner.

It says yes to Tennessee, it says yes to young people with ambition and ability, and it says no to Tennesseans traveling to Kentucky, Georgia, Missouri, Virginia, and other states -- as they have done with more than $200 million -- to play the lottery in those states. Lottery yes!

State Senator Steve Cohen is the sponsor of the statewide lottery referendum, coming in 2002.

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