Las Vegas Sun

May 21, 2019

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Victorious Tenn. lottery backers ponder next step

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Powerball. Lotto South. Elvis scratchoff cards.

All could be in Tennessee's near future, now that voters have approved removing a state constitutional ban on a lottery.

"I think we need to do all of those things," state Sen. Steve Cohen, the state's chief lottery proponent, said Wednesday. "The more you do ... the more you're going to provide for education."

Despite heavy opposition by religious groups, the lottery proposal won support from 58 percent of the nearly 1.6 million Tennesseans who voted on Tuesday's referendum.

Passage didn't actually create a lottery, but it cleared the way for lawmakers to develop one patterned after those in Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Money raised would fund college scholarships first, then preschool programs and school construction. Supporters estimate a Tennessee lottery would gross $900 million a year, leaving about $300 million for education.

Until Tuesday, Tennessee was one of three states, along with Hawaii and Utah, that did not permit any form of gambling. It now joins 38 other states with lotteries, plus North Dakota, which also approved a lottery proposal Tuesday.

Cohen said Tennesseans already gamble, evidenced by the estimated $243 million they spent last year crossing the border to play lotteries in Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and Missouri.

On the morning after the election, he wasted no time in filing Senate Bill 1, which he described as a "skeleton bill" designed to get the games going.

"Each month that we delay is $25 million worth of education funding that we lose," said the Memphis Democrat, who has pushed for a lottery since 1984.

Tennessee could sell its first lottery ticket by December 2003 -- 13 months from now. "I think that's a reasonable target date for a Santa Claus lottery in Tennessee," Cohen said.

In light of Tuesday's vote, he said he wouldn't expect much of a legislative fight over enacting a lottery.

The House sponsor of the ballot measure, State Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, agreed.

"Anything's possible, but I think the people of this state have spoken and I think this General Assembly will act accordingly," said Newton, a southeast Tennessee lawmaker who first opposed a lottery but changed his mind.

The Rev. James Porch, executive director of the anti-lottery Tennessee Baptist Convention, said the state's 3,000 Southern Baptist churches would stay involved in the discussion, although he wasn't sure what role Baptists would play. "There's a tremendous amount of confusion about where it goes from this point," he said.

Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance campaign director Michael Gilstrap said his organization's role ended with Tuesday's election because "it was the will of the people that they want a lottery."

Cohen said a legislative committee would be established to study successful lotteries in other states and "flesh out" his lottery bill.

One potential subject of debate could be the type of scholarship program enacted.

Cohen has touted the Georgia HOPE scholarship program, which awards free tuition to students who finish high school with "B" or better averages.

But others, including Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Bredesen, have proposed a more needs-based approach -- or at least a combination of academic and financial assistance scholarships.

Cohen said merit and need both should play a role.

The New York Times reported last week on a Georgia HOPE scholar who used her parents' college savings to buy a car, travel to Italy, Switzerland and Argentina, and invest in the stock market -- all while receiving a lottery funded free ride to the University of Georgia.

"That's not what this is directed at," Cohen said. "Those folks that are out there already living in wealth, going to country clubs ... they don't need this."