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ELECTION 08: Ark. considering lottery

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–The Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s executive director and elected officers expressed strong opposition to a lottery proposal on the November ballot during a news conference Oct. 22 in Little Rock.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment No. 3, if approved, would authorize the General Assembly to “establish, operate and regulate state lotteries to fund scholarships and grants for Arkansas citizens” enrolled in the state’s colleges and universities.

“All across the state our [Baptist] associations have passed resolutions in opposition to the lottery,” said Wes George, ABSC president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Rogers. “We have our annual state meeting where our entire state convention convenes in Bentonville next week. … We will present a resolution in opposition [to the lottery].

“We believe it is predatory, that it is repressive and regressive,” George said. “A lot of people have to lose in order for someone to win. The big losers are those who are predominantly poor.”

Emil Turner, ABSC executive director, told TV, radio and newspaper reporters gathered at the Baptist Building that the Arkansas convention repeatedly has taken positions in opposition to legalized gambling.

“We believe as Arkansas Baptists that the lottery is an unethical approach to financing state programs,” Turner said. “It places the state in the position of becoming a predator and enticing people to spend their money in hopes of some nebulous financial gain.

“In reality, the only people who profit from the lottery are those who run the lottery.

“We believe that a lottery to finance scholarships will put poor people in the position of providing scholarships for wealthy people,” Turner continued. “We believe that the children of middle-income and wealthy people will receive scholarships to attend colleges and universities while the children of poor people who buy so many lottery tickets will be unable to attend those institutions.”

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s backing of the lottery proposal has given it clout that previous initiatives did not have. Halter announced his plans in September 2007 to put the proposed state-operated lottery on the November 2008 ballot.

Halter estimated his lottery proposal would raise $100 million annually for scholarships for students to attend public and private accredited higher education institutions in the state.

Earlier in 2007, Halter had backed a proposed constitutional amendment to create a lottery that died in a legislative committee after advocacy groups complained that low-income individuals who purchase lottery tickets would fund scholarships for middle- and upper-income students.

Clay Hallmark, ABSC first vice president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Marion, told reporters at the news conference of the impact gambling has had in Crittenden County where he serves. He said area families have been devastated by the impact of gambling at Southland Gaming Park in West Memphis, the Tennessee lottery and the casinos of north Mississippi.

“We have been able to see firsthand the devastation to families and lives that have come as a result of the gaming outlets and the gambling outlets … in our area,” Hallmark said.

“All of our social services in eastern Arkansas are tapped out to the max from people needing help,” Hallmark continued, pointing out that gambling takes money “out of the pockets of the people who can least afford to pay their way … because they have spent money on lottery tickets, they’ve been to the Southland Gaming Track or they’ve been down to Tunica (casinos in Mississippi).”

His church has seen benevolence requests quadruple in the last two years, Hallmark said, and he has counseled people who have lost their 401K retirement funds and their savings, had their homes foreclosed and automobiles repossessed due to gambling addictions. He told of one woman who became so hooked on slot machines that she left her husband and three children at 1 a.m. one day to drive to a casino where she ended up losing more than $500 in a matter of hours.

Robbie Jackson, ABSC second vice president and pastor of East Mount Zion Trinity Baptist Church in Clarksville, reported, “The churches in the Arkansas River Valley Baptist Association where I serve have gone on record as being opposed to the lottery. We would like to see this proposal defeated.”

Turner noted that the lottery opens doors for casinos in Arkansas communities.

“A lottery will be defined by the state legislature and the courts, and their definition will be the one that counts, and that makes it possible that this bill could open the door to casino gambling across our state,” Turner said.

“It is unimaginable to us that EZ Marts and Quik Stops in communities close to elementary schools could have the right to sell lottery tickets to elementary school children,” Turner also said, “but there is nothing in this proposal that would keep that from happening.”

He said other states promising to use lottery funding for education have simply reduced general fund allocations to education.

“We believe the dollars raised by a lottery in remote communities in Arkansas, such as Dover or Alpena or Snowball, Ark., would be moved from those communities to the coffers of the state legislature and distributed as they see fit,” Turner said. “They would not provide jobs in those communities. They would not enhance the quality of life in those communities. That money is gone from those communities forever. Every dollar spent on legalized gambling is a dollar that cannot be spent on mortgages, furniture, in restaurant meals or automobile purchases.

“The lottery does not create any money,” Turner said. “It shifts money from one group of people to another group of people. We think this is unethical and predatory public policy…. We would encourage all Arkansas citizens to … vote no to a legalized lottery.”

Turner told reporters that Arkansas Baptist pastors and churches have been talking about their opposition to the lottery for a year or more.

“The heartbreaking thing about a lottery is the state becomes the predator,” Turner reiterated. “The state must constantly prey on the poorest members of its citizenry in order for a lottery to function…. Our state, which should protect our citizens, becomes a predator.”
Charlie Warren is editor of the Arkansas Baptist News.

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