Voters have the final say on Tennessee lottery

By Rozella Hardin


   The days of driving to Virginia for lottery tickets may be over for local aficionados of games of chance, that is if Tennessee voters in November choose to lift a constitutional ban on lotteries.
   Tennessee is one of only three states that bars all forms of legalized gambling, but the Tennessee Legislature last year decided to allow voters to determine in November whether they want a lottery -- and polls show they do.
   Should voters choose to lift the constitutional ban on lotteries, Tennessee could begin operating its own game of chance by next year, some proponents of the game say. That would leave Hawaii and Utah as the only bulwarks against legalized gambling's expansion.
   "Hawaii is an island, Utah is a theocracy and Tennessee is an anomaly," said state Sen. Steve Cohen, who has introduced a lottery bill in the Legislature every year since 1984.
   The Tennessee Senate voted to allow the referendum on the lottery by a vote of 22-13, with no margin to spare. A two-thirds majority vote was required for the passage. The measure sailed through the House, 80-15.
   It was the second year the state lottery resolution had cleared the Legislature, a requirement laid out in the state's constitution.
   Cohen in arguing his case for a state lottery, said the polling indicated 75 percent to 80 percent wanted to vote on a lottery referendum and 70 percent to 75 percent would vote to approve a lottery if given the chance.
   All eight states bordering Tennessee allow gambling in one form or another. Four of them -- Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina and Missouri -- offer lotteries. Alabama allows dog racing; Arkansas, dog and horse racing; North Carolina, tribal casinos; and Mississippi, casino gambling.
   If Tennesseans approve a lottery, lawmakers would establish one, with proceeds going to college scholarships much like Georgia's lottery funds Hope Scholarships for its top students. Details would be worked out by the Legislature before the lottery would go into effect probably in 2003.
   The Lottery Question
   The lottery question in Tennessee has been tossed back and forth for several years, and Tennessee is not alone, as the lottery question will appear this year on the North Carolina ballot, but only after years of debate. Alabamians last year voted the measure down following an intense campaign by religious groups in the state.
   In recent decades of this century, a strategy of many state governments seeking additional revenues has been to create a state lottery. No state has enacted a new personal income tax or general sales tax in more than 20 years. In contrast, beginning with New Hampshire in 1964, 37 states have enacted a lottery. In almost all of these states, the argument by proponents that a lottery is a voluntary source of government funding has prevailed over opponents' concerns about involving the state in the active promotion of gambling.
   Gov. Don Sundquist, who has never proposed to create a new state lottery, has said he would probably vote for a lottery, citing the state's grim economic outlook.
   Research into the politics of gambling in the South has uncovered several reasons why a new lottery has ranked low on Tennessee's policy agenda.
   Alabama's defeat of a lottery in a referendum last October is part of the explanation. Advocates of a Tennessee lottery, such as Senator Cohen of Memphis, frequently point to public opinion polls, which, for many years, have indicated that more than 60 percent of the state's voters favor a lottery. But polls in Alabama that showed similar levels of support for a lottery did not prevent 54 percent of the electorate from voting against it.
   Tennessee being located in the Bible Belt, conservative Christian groups have been very vocal in their opposition to the lottery, and have viewed it more of a moral issue than a political issue.
   However, the reason for Tennessee's lottery resistance goes much deeper. One has to do with the state constitution.
   To be sure, Tennessee is far from alone in having a constitution that explicitly forbids lotteries. Almost every state that has enacted a lottery in recent years has had to amend its constitution to do so. But the Tennessee constitution is the most difficult in the country to alter. Historically, it has been amended an average of once every four years, the slowest rate of amendment of any state.
   Another reason why Tennessee historically has been inhospitable to a lottery is closely related to the first: the sheer length of the constitutional amendment process. Sundquist and the Legislature are working on a budget deficit that is expected to reach as high as $400 million this fiscal year. Like all elected leaders, they are scanning a short time horizon in their search for solutions, and a lottery will not provide the answer.
   Yet, to amend the constitution to allow a lottery and then enact a law that would actually create one could require a process so extended as to delay for several years the arrival of the first lottery dollar in the state treasury.
   Amending the Constitution
The Tennessee constitution can be amended in one of two ways. Under the first, two consecutive general assemblies (a general assembly lasts two years) must approve a proposed amendment, the first time by a simple majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the second time by a two-thirds majority of both houses. The amendment then, such as the lottery question, goes before the voters in a referendum, but not until the next quadrennial gubernatorial election -- in this case, this year.
   Once on the ballot, the amendment has to win the support of a majority of all those voting for governor, not just those voting on the amendment. Traditionally, many people who vote for governor "roll off" before reaching the lower parts of the ballot where referenda are locating, thus the reason for the state Senate voting this past week to place the lottery question at the top of the November ballot.
   The measure, which is pending in the House, would allow the question to appear on the ballot before the list of 25 candidates for governor.
   Sen. Steve Cohen, who sponsored the bill, said issues that deal with changes in the state constitution are of utmost importance and belong at the top of the ballot.
   The other method for approving a constitutional amendment is the source of another deeply-rooted reason why a lottery proposal has been largely absent from the current debate on raising additional revenues. This method provides that a constitutional convention will occur -- but only after the call for a constitutional convention is approved by a majority of both houses of the Legislature and, in a referendum, by a majority of the voters. Delegates must then be elected; the convention must agree on a proposed amendment; and the voters must approve the proposal in yet another referendum.
   The General Assembly has been loathe to call a convention to consider a lottery. For one thing, the state constitution only permits one constitutional convention every six years. There has been fear that a more urgent constitutional issue may arise sooner than that.
   People of good will in every state differ strongly and honestly about the merits of lotteries. What makes Tennessee unusual is how seldom it has given serious consideration to the idea.
   Some proponents of a lottery say even if the referendum is approved in November, an actual lottery is still months or even years away. Regardless, the voters have the final say: nothing can go into the Tennessee constitution unless it is ultimately approved by them.
   (Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles on a proposed Tennessee lottery. Future articles will discuss the pro and cons of a lottery, who will benefit, and the campaign being waged for and against the lottery in the months leading up to the November referendum.)