Pastor not taking bets on lottery's success

By Greg Miller
STAR STAFF
gmiller@starhq.com

  
Rev. Steve Witt, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, said he won't place any bets that the Tennessee lottery will offer more benefits than liabilities.
   Even if students choose to use lottery scholarship funds to attend church-affiliated schools, Witt's opinion about the lottery is still negative.
   Lottery ticket sales are scheduled to begin Jan. 20 to provide scholarship funds for secondary education in the state. Online games will begin 60 days later.
   "There's a four-letter word that I think comes into play," Witt said. "W-O-R-K is a great word that I think our people who are 18 and 19 need to learn in helping pay for their college. If a person is paying for their college education, chances are they're not going to skip class, but if the government's footing the bill, there is not going to be that desire to show up. If secondary education is still the issue, I think that is not a good foundation to start the lottery anyway. Of course I don't agree with it, but even if I did I wouldn't agree with it on those terms."
   Students qualified to receive scholarships from the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship Program may select the accredited college or university, either public or private, they want to attend.
   Nancy Beverly, financial aid director for Milligan College, is glad that lottery scholarships will equip those students who otherwise could not attend college with a wide range of options. She also said one benefit is that the award exists only between the state and the student and the institution is not involved.
   "The student has the right to either accept or decline the award. If the student accepts the award and chooses Milligan College, the student uses these scholarship funds to assist in paying his or her expenses at Milligan College. The institution does not have the right to accept or decline the award - this is the student's right. These scholarships benefit the student, not the institution," she said.
   An issued statement from Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville says: "In spite of vigorous efforts on the part of many at Free Will Baptist Bible College, the state has approved a lottery and passed the Lottery Education Act. Therefore, qualified Tennessee students will be entitled to apply for scholarships funded by the lottery.
   "Free Will Baptist Bible College, as it always has, opposes gambling. However, funds distributed under the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship (lottery funds) will be awarded to all qualified students who apply, unless they decline the scholarship. The decision to accept or decline the scholarship must be made by students and their families. While the college does not condone the manner in which these funds are raised, it must recognize the right of each individual to obey his or her conscience regarding whether to accept them.
   "The college will notify each Tennessee student who applies for entrance concerning how the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship is funded and their right to decline it."
   If Witt were a betting man, he said he would place odds that the lottery will only be profitable on a short-term basis, probably just a few years. "It always is," he said. "But you can mark my words, within 3-5 years the lottery will level and the amount of money we're taking in is going to decrease because the infatuation will be over. The ones who will be left gambling on a regular basis are those who have become addicted to it, and those who shouldn't be gambling who are going to begin doing that as a lifestyle. That's where the negative consequences will really show," he said.
   Witt also believes the lottery will only fuel collective greed. "Once you allow something in, it only progressively gets worse. Once you get the lottery in, and the government begins to enjoy having what appears to be extra money ... I think greed is going to drive people to begin to accumulate more money. Certainly, other states -- like Mississippi, New York and California -- have followed suit with that. We have a lot of states now that have casinos and statewide gambling operations, and it's a dangerous thing to get into, because it's kind of an ill-gotten gain ... I think in the future, there's a good chance that we'll see casinos."
   Witt said Virginia and Georgia are examples of what could happen in Tennessee. "Virginia has the lottery, and their state is in a horrible financial situation. Georgia has the lottery, and they have a state tax. Their taxes are just as high as Tennessee's. I lived there for two years, and the lottery really didn't do a thing for that state. Money shifted from other revenues that they could get taxes on, like durable goods, to go into the lottery, which was not really taxed. Because of that, the states found that they were having shortfalls."
   "Now that the lottery is here, I think it ought to be taxed. If they add sales tax, like they do to everything else, then people out of the state who will buy lottery tickets will help generate some revenue for the state to help pay for the social services that are going to be driven up by having this lottery."
   Witt is not calling for a boycott against stores that will be selling lottery tickets. He believes, however, that although those stores may make some money on the tickets they sell, customers may purchase fewer items than they typically purchase. "I don't think lottery tickets are going to be a big windfall for the area, especially for these businesses that are going to sell them," he said. "I caution these businesses that what they may see is, instead of people buying gum, candy bars, and other things that they sell, they may just end up buying lottery tickets."
   Witt also said stores selling lottery tickets may be "setting themselves up to be robbed" because of an increase in cash flow.
   Witt also questions the wisdom of paying Rebecca Paul, the lottery's CEO, a reported base salary of $350,000. By meeting goals and incentives, Paul could make more than $750,000.
   Although he is unhappy that the lottery was approved, Witt said he was excited, "that at least in Carter County it was voted down. The majority of the people said that they didn't want it. Now that it's here, we're going to deal with its after effects and the effect that it's going to have on people in this state," he said.