NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Tennessee Senate voted 22-11 on Feb. 7 to allow the state’s residents to decide whether to have a lottery.
The vote on the lottery referendum crossed party lines, with seven Republicans and 15 Democrats voting for the bill. Eight Republicans and three Democrats voted against the lottery bill. Lt. Gov. John Wilder cast the deciding ballot, which gave the two-thirds majority needed for the bill to pass.
For years the Tennessee Senate has stopped lottery bills, but with two new senators on board this year, who replaced senators opposed to the lottery, the tide turned.
The House of Representatives still must approve SJR001, but the House traditionally has looked more favorably on lottery bills. It is expected to get the 66 votes needed for passage.
Under the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Steve Cohen of Memphis, lottery proceeds would go first to college scholarships for Tennesseans to attend state schools. It also would fund construction for kindergarten-12th grade schools and early learning
The bill also contains a provision under which the legislature could grant nonprofit organizations permission to hold an annual “lottery” for the purpose of raising funds. The provision fails to address the criteria to be used for such an event.
According to a Feb. 8 article in The Tennessean daily newspaper in Nashville, the lottery question would be placed on the ballot in the November 2002 gubernatorial election. Voters would be asked whether they want to amend the Tennessee constitution by dropping its ban against lotteries.
If the measure is approved by a majority of people who vote for governor, the legislature would set up a lottery in 2003, and it could open for business later that year, according to the article.
Tennessee Baptist Convention Executive Director James Porch took the news in stride.
“The worse thing we can do now is to react,” he said. “If we react, we will lose the opportunity for an adequate response.”
During the January meeting of the TBC executive board, members passed a resolution against the resolution that was sent to every Tennessee senator.
The board also empowered its executive committee to “undertake any and all action necessary to develop and implement a plan to address the gambling issue in Tennessee.”
Porch said the subcommittee of the executive committee appointed to assist churches in responding to the lottery issue is already beginning to develop a strategy.
Gary Anderson, TBC public affairs consultant, said he was not surprised by the Senate vote.
“We call on Tennessee Baptists to contact their representatives and pray that the House will not repeat the action they’ve taken in the past,” Anderson said.
Other Tennessee Baptists who have actively opposed the lottery were disheartened by the Senate vote.
Sen. Gene Elsea, a member of First Baptist Church, Spring City, has been voting against the lottery the entire 10 years he has been in the Senate.
He said the vote of his colleagues was “very disappointing. I’m not a good loser.”
Elsea acknowledged it was likely the House would approve the bill and that the lottery issue eventually will be left up to the people of Tennessee.
“My biggest disappointment is that if the people vote the lottery in, we won’t have a clean state anymore,” Elsea said.
After the vote Elsea also said he was disappointed when he heard a church member say, “Now, that money won’t be going across the state line anymore.”
“My thought was that we don’t care what lessons we are passing on to our children as long as the money stays in the state,” the senator said.
Elsea still holds hope that Tennesseans will vote against the lottery in November 2002.
“After what they did in Alabama [state residents defeated a lottery referendum two years ago], it is possible to muster our forces and get people educated on all that the lottery includes,” he said.
“We have people [in Tennessee] who are clear thinking. If we muster the right groups, we can give the lottery proponents a run for their money,” Elsea added.
Ann Bennett, who has been active in anti-lottery efforts in east Tennessee, said she was saddened by the action of the Senate.
“What concerns me is legislators who voted yes for the referendum although they are personally opposed to the lottery,” said Bennett, a member of Indian Springs Baptist Church, Kingsport, and chairman of the Sullivan Baptist Association’s Christian Life department.
“Their oath of office said they would not vote for a referendum that they did not fully support,” Bennett said. “It grieves me that they violated their oath of office,” she said.
Bennett said the Senate’s action basically passed a “tax” on to churches within the state.
“We’re going to have to raise money for a major referendum fight and that will cost our churches thousands of dollars,” Bennett said, adding that it will require the effort and cooperation of all churches in the state regardless of denominational affiliation.
Barrett Duke, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s vice president for research, describing the Senate vote as “a great disappointment,” said, “The senators had plenty of evidence that state lotteries do not live up to any of their promises. Our forefathers were so convinced of this that they placed a prohibition in our state constitution.
“Now it will be up to the people of Tennessee to decide,” Duke said. “Fortunately, Tennessee is a state with a strong emphasis on spiritual and family values. I believe that when Tennesseans are presented with the facts, they will recognize that a lottery is not good for the state and they will put an end to this issue once and for all. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission stands ready to join in the effort to keep Tennessee lottery-free.”
A middle Tennessee laywoman from Two Rivers Baptist Church who has been active in the lottery issue for about 14 years took a philosophical approach to the matter.
“I think the bad news is that looking back over the years, what happened last night has confirmed that information never really made a difference,” said Bobbie Patray, president of Tennessee Eagle Forum, affiliated with the national, conservative, pro-family organization.
“It makes me wonder how much factual information will be effective,” she said.
Patray credited the pro-lottery vote to the fact that two anti-lottery senators gave up their seats and were replaced by pro-lottery senators. “The difference was the makeup of the Senate has changed over the years,” Patray said.
“It saddens me to think we have made a giant leap to having a lottery in our state.
“But the battle is not over,” Patray said.
“This is an opportunity for the church and God’s people to put feet to their prayers. It will take a lot of time and a lot of money [to defeat the lottery],” she said.
Art Toalston contributed to this article.