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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 01:19 am

Losing proposition

Funding education isn’t a good enough excuse for state-sponsored gambling

With the proposal to introduce keno now shelved, the governor and the General Assembly must devise an alternative revenue source if they are to fund the governor’s capital-development plan. However, let’s not for a moment think that we’ve heard the last of expanding the state’s lottery operations. Trust that when the inevitable budget shortfalls reappear next year, keno will be back on the table. Gov. Rod Blagojevich is by no means an innovator in his proposal — he is following a nationwide trend among states to expand their lotteries to pay for public-works programs. In every case, public education is cited as the recipient of at least a portion of those revenues. Any objection to the use of such controversial revenue sources seems to be trumped by the vaunted status of public education, its unquestioned necessity to our state’s and our society’s well-being. However, if only for this reason, we must demand that in principle and practice our education system be provided and provided for in a manner consistent with the values taught in our classrooms. It is necessary and altogether proper for us to consider precisely what is entailed in the operations of the state lottery. The expansion of the lottery will certainly lead to greater revenues for education — but at what cost, and through what means? Never mind that the causes of public education’s fiscal woes are systemic and that throwing money at the problem has proved ineffectual. Never mind that while GTECH Corp. has for years been in dialogue with the state about bringing keno to Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich’s proposal came only after his former congressional chief of staff was hired by that tech firm to lobby precisely for those ends. Let’s for a moment focus merely on the fact that the lottery promotes — in fact, depends on — the habitual “business” of the undereducated and the financially desperate, those who public education is supposed to help most. A 1999 study presented to the National Gambling Commission revealed that, nationally, the average player spends $313 per year on lottery. Whites spend $210, blacks $997. And people with an annual income of less than $10,000 spent $597 — “the most of any income group.” Keep in mind, almost all revenues from state lotteries were, at least initially, to be steered toward higher education. College graduates spend half as much on the lottery as do high-school dropouts. If you think that Illinois has remained ignorant of these trends, consider its advertising slogans past and present. A billboard placed by the Illinois Lottery in a blighted Chicago neighborhood reminded residents that playing was “How to get from Washington Boulevard to Easy Street.” Another reminder to the poor of their hopeless situation then reassured them, “This could be your ticket out.” The state doesn’t merely capitalize on the fact that Illinois’ poor fail to realize that they can’t afford to play . . . it reminds them again and again that they can’t afford not to. It tells players you have to “play to win.” You have to play to lose, too. But winning doesn’t necessarily mean “getting rich” or “getting out” for many players. They consider playing a prudent investment. A study conducted by the Opinion Research Center found that one in five respondents thought that “the most practical strategy for accumulating several hundred thousand dollars [for retirement]” was banking on the lottery. Annual lottery sales in Illinois are $134.78 per capita. That’s $182.38 per adult. Over a 40-year professional career, that same amount invested in an actual retirement-savings plan would, on average, yield more than $250,000 more than would the lottery. It’s one thing for the state to condone gambling, if only to tax it. It is quite another to conduct it. State-sponsored schools exist, at least in part, to provide for those who would not otherwise be able to afford an education that encourages students to make careful, reasonable, even scholarly judgments. Taxing wasteful, whimsical vice is a tradeoff most taxpayers are willing to accept as a means of funding an unquestioned social good such as public education. But taxing vice is not the same as providing it, nor is it the same as promoting it. Lottery players are by and large not members of some leisure class. They are often misinformed, misled people who think that playing the lottery makes mathematical sense — which, according to the official Web site of the Illinois Lottery, is no problem. After all, “You don’t have to be good with numbers to play the Lottery!”

Also from Collin Hitt

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