BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas lottery sales, which finance college scholarships, have steadily declined since the first tickets were sold in 2009.
Lottery officials and legislators expected a drop off because other states with lotteries experienced the same reduction in sales after the initial excitement wore off. In the past couple of years, revenue for scholarships in Arkansas has declined from almost $100 million annually to an estimated $82.7 million this year.
Proposals to shore up lottery ticket sales have sparked a disagreement at the state Capitol that may spill over into the 2015 regular session.
The battle lines were drawn when the state Lottery Commission voted to proceed with plans to install monitor games, on which people can play a lottery every four or five minutes while looking at a computer screen.
The nine members of the Lottery Commission are private citizens appointed by the governor, the President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The Commission’s vote to proceed with monitor games went directly against guidelines approved by a legislative committee in a vote taken just the day before.
The Lottery Commission Legislative Oversight Committee is made up of 12 legislators – six senators and six House members – who hear regular reports from the Lottery Commission. After hearing about plans to improve ticket sales from Lottery Commission staff, legislators on the oversight committee voted to express its opposition to monitor games.
In spite of the expression on non-support by legislators, on the following day the Lottery Commission voted to proceed with monitor games.
Individual legislators and the governor expressed disappointment that the Lottery Commission went against the wishes of the Legislative Oversight Committee. They voiced concerns that monitor games could gradually evolve into a version of slot machines that would be available in multiple locations around the state.
Lottery commissioners defended their action, saying that monitor games would be merely an incremental change in the way lotteries are currently played, and would not be like video slot machines. They emphasized the need to reach new audiences and thus increase ticket sales, in order to maintain the lottery scholarship program that has helped 30,000 Arkansas students pay for college.
The director of the Lottery Commission estimated that installing monitor games could increase revenue by $4 million to $5 million a year.
Arkansas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the state lottery in 2008. The vote was 648,000 in favor and 383,000 against.
In 2009 the legislature approved Act 606, the enabling legislation that put in place the lottery and directed how revenue would fund college scholarships. Act 606 created the Lottery Commission and outlined its duties and powers. It is 117 pages long.
The college scholarships are called Academic Challenge Scholarships and the amounts awarded to students go up after each year they stay in school.
Freshmen at a four-year university who qualify receive $2,000. As sophomores they get $3,000, then $4,000 as juniors and $5,000 as seniors. Students at two-year colleges get $2,000 a year for both years.
In previous years, scholarship amounts were higher. Students who qualified for higher scholarships in past years will not have the amounts lowered as long as they remain eligible.