You’re just avoiding the problem. Sometimes, the right thing and the hard thing are the same thing. --Liz Lemon
I quote this line from one of my favorite TV characters often, and it applies today as the Alabama legislature considers a proposal to bring a lottery to Alabama. Most people agree that if the legislature sends this bill to a vote, the people of Alabama will approve it. Some argue that the voters should decide. Others argue that the voters have already decided by sending legislators to Montgomery that will make prudent financial decisions for our state.
Many voters, including me, are regretting those votes today because our leaders refuse to do the right thing, which is also the hard thing—use existing revenue sources wisely and add reasonable additional streams to fund state government.
I have yet to find any sound argument that a lottery is a good way to raise money for state services. There are those in state government and those who profit from the lottery who support the system, yes. But Google the question “Is a lottery a good way to raise state revenue?” and you will find the following in the top responses:
Our legislators know the facts. They are just letting the “people” decide so they don’t have to. That’s not leadership.
Proponents like Gov. Bentley now say the lottery is our only option. It hasn’t been that long since he expressed a very different opinion on state-sponsored gambling, but any moral ground Bentley claimed in the past has been flooded by the tide of his personal failings. He is grasping at a life raft that has way too many holes in it.
As an Alabama citizen who lives on the state’s border with Georgia, I’m familiar with the pro-lottery arguments. Everyone with a B average gets free tuition. Adults can go back to school. The state is buying technology with the proceeds and sending kids to PreK. Little of that is true anymore.
According to the website of the Georgia Lottery, Capital Outlay/Techology Grants from the lottery were last appropriated in fiscal year 2003. No students currently attending Georgia K-12 schools have benefitted from technology grants from the lottery because of revenue deficits.
Lottery funds help pay for PreK, though the funds are “provided on a competitive basis.” Not every child gets a free PreK spot at the school nearest their residence, and not every child gets a spot period.
Adults who earn a GED can receive a one-time grant of $500 to pay for tuition, books, or other educational costs. Georgia residents who are working towards a certificate or diploma at one of the state’s technical colleges can receive awards for tuition (not books) through the Zell Miller Grant or can receive a grant for a portion of their tuition (once again, not books) through the HOPE Grant.
So for illustration, a student who attends Georgia Highlands College in Rome, one of the most affordable colleges in the state, who takes 15 hours would be charged $1895 in-state tuition and fees (not counting books) for Fall 2016. The HOPE Grant for that student would pay $1,200 of that tuition, leaving $695 plus the cost of books for the student to pay from other sources. A student receiving the Zell Miller Scholarship Grant would receive $1,363, leaving a deficit of $532 per term for the student to pay. Multiply each of those by two (for two semesters) and you’ll see that the average student attending college will still pay more than $1,000 each year in tuition and fees alone.
I mention the additional cost of books for a reason. According to the College Board, the average college student will spend around $1,200 on books and supplies each year. Living expenses, gas, clothes, and other necessities just add to that total. The HOPE, while helpful, does not guarantee any student an easy financial path to a college degree. In other words, the proposed beneficiary does not get all that is expected.
Of course, in Alabama, none of the money from the proposed lottery is set to go to college scholarships or schools. The explanation of Georgia's benefits is important, however, because it supports the research that shows lotteries, including Georgia’s seemingly successful enterprise, seldom provide the funds they promise (see Why State Lotteries Never Live Up To Their Promises). Illinois lottery winners could substantiate that fact as well. Last year, Illinois’s dreary budget situation left lottery winners of prizes over $600 with IOUs from the state.
In Alabama, the proposed lottery would shore up the state’s ailing General Fund budget, which includes Medicaid. In Alabama approximately one-fourth of the state’s residents depend on Medicaid for healthcare. That’s more than a million people, half of whom are children. Dr. Marsha Raulerson, MD, has written a wonderful explanation of how cuts to Medicaid are hurting these patients and the doctors who care for them. You can read her article here.
Maggie Walsh has also written a great summary of how the numbers Bentley and other proponents are touting simply don’t add up. You can read her article here, but the gist is that the estimates of revenue being thrown around are bad estimates. It is likely that Alabama would not take in nearly the $225 million figure Bentley says is certain.
Moral opposition to a lottery is significant, but it also doesn’t persuade. As one commenter wrote in response to a CNN piece that asked “Are lotteries a fair way for states to raise money?”:
Any tax or revenue source that I have the choice to opt out of is OK by me. Lotteries, luxury taxes, speeding tickets, liquor, tobacco and, yes, eventually, marijuana taxes are great ways to fund my government without me having to provide the funds. If you, like me, choose to give up or moderate these activities, great- that means less pressure on the health care system and safer roads. If not, pay more so I can pay less.
Whether you view the lottery as a tax or revenue source, many of us will opt out of it. I live 3 miles from the Georgia line, but I haven’t bought a lottery ticket since 1995. (I bought 3 to take a picture of for an article I was working on.) I’ve thought about buying lottery tickets in those years. I’ve dreamed of how I would spend a few millions dollars (my list is pretty benevolent, in fact). But in the end, I don’t get much pleasure from losing, and I’d rather have a $1 sweet tea from McDonalds. The end result is the same—a handful of worthless trash.
By some estimates, every Alabama resident would have to spend $182 dollars annually on lottery tickets to provide the funding Bentley says is possible. In my family, that’s approximately one month of gymnastics fees or 5 fast food meals or 5 tanks of gas. For someone without insurance, that’s one doctor visit. One prescription. For some families, that’s two months of groceries. But for the majority of lottery players, $182 spent on lottery tickets is money that they will never see again.
Some argue that the poor who buy lottery tickets are simply putting their money back into the system that provides them benefits. Wrong again. Check out this article by Katherine Green Robertson, Vice President of the Alabama Policy Institute (API), who says this:
… Just in case you’re thinking it, taking from those who rely on state benefits is not a clever way to recoup costs, but will leave them with even less income and further diminished means of escaping poverty.
Finally, the argument “they’re already spending their money, why not keep it here” is common. Using that logic, we could also make an argument (which many do) that thousands of drug users are purchasing illegal drugs so we should make those drugs legal in order to get their money. Without a doubt there are many Alabamians crossing the border to other states and buying lottery tickets. But there is a big difference in having to transport yourself to another state versus dropping a few dollars each time you buy gas or groceries. How many parents will get sucked in to the lure of riches and choose to buy tickets instead of a gallon of milk for their kids or a gallon of gas to get to work? Foolish choice, yes. But just because people will probably make the choice anyway is no reason to make it easier for them to do it.
I'm sickened and saddened by the current state of our state and national politics and the world we are creating for our kids. I have moral objections to a state-sponsored lottery, yes. However, people with no faith-based objections have examined the lottery time and time again and found that it hurts the most vulnerable, poorest residents of a state. My faith and my experience tells me that all of us make poor choices every day, some that hurt worse than others. Why should the state be promoting those bad choices among its weakest citizens?
There is money in Alabama to take care of our budget, but our governor and many of our legislators refuse to make the tough choices that might lead to a reasonable long-term solution. The next few days have great importance for the future of Alabama. If there has ever been a time to consider the kind of future you want for our state, that time is now. Once you decide, let your state representatives know how you feel. You can find his or her contact information at http://capwiz.com/state-al/home/.
Whatever you do, don’t just sit quietly. Too much and too many are at risk.
I am a regular contributor to The Alabama Baptist newspaper, and I also write and edit for several religious, business and educational outlets through my business, McWhorter Media and Marketing.
One of the greatest privileges of being a writer is the opportunity to share the stories of others with a larger audience. I love to do that!
Sharing my own stories is much more challenging, though no less important to making sense of the challenges of Faith and Family in everyday life.
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