Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee didn’t exactly shock anyone by saying he would fight legislative efforts to legalize sports gambling in Tennessee.
Lee, after all, is this campaign’s most likely to wear Jesus on his sleeve. And, it marked just one more opportunity for him to disagree with Democratic candidate Karl Dean, who, like most pragmatists, says he would sign sports betting into law if it’s done correctly.
For Dean, it just makes sense to take the revenue and use it for something positive, especially since people who are “inclined” to gamble will find a way to do it one way or another. He points toward Mississippi’s new sports betting law and notes Memphis could use the revenue to bolster Shelby County public schools.
But Lee’s moral code apparently won’t allow people to spend their money on games of chance. Or, at least he frowns on it.
During the final gubernatorial debate between the Franklin Republican and Dean, a Nashville Democrat and former two-term mayor, Lee said he would try to stop the General Assembly from passing a sports betting bill because it could lead to organized crime and would hurt poor people the most.
“I think the lottery shows and has had the most negative effect on the lowest-income citizens in our state, and I think that would have the same effect with sports betting,” Lee said afterward when asked whether the lottery is proof gambling can be successful in Tennessee. “That’s why I’ve been opposed to it.”
This made the mental gears turn because Lee says he supports the Drive to 55 and Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiatives such as Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, both of which use the state’s lottery funds to provide scholarship money for young people and non-traditional, older students to attend community colleges and colleges of applied technology.
Does that mean Lee would work to get rid of the lottery if elected?
Does it mean he would try to find other ways to fund the Tennessee Promise and Reconnect?
His campaign declined to answer these questions, stating instead that Lee “does not believe we should expand gambling further in Tennessee as it is proven to have a disproportionate, negative impact on poorer citizens.”
Maybe he should have stopped with that after the debate.
Lee’s campaign also supplied articles from the Wall Street Journal and vox.com showing low-income residents are the most likely to buy lottery tickets and that states even target their lottery ad campaigns toward poor people.
The 2017 article points toward a $759 million jackpot in which millions of people nationwide stood in line to buy Powerball lottery tickets.
That’s why they call it gambling. It’s risky, and most people understand that concept even though the Wall Street Journal article says a survey by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission “suggests” people who don’t go to college might believe the return on a lottery ticket is 40 percent higher than someone with a degree.
All the more reason to send them to college, using lottery scholarship money, of course, rather than slap a welder’s torch in their hands.
The article quotes yet another study showing people in the bottom third of households shift 3 percent of their money from food expenses and 7 percent from mortgages payments, rent and bills to go toward lottery tickets. That assumes they have enough money to buy a house in the first place.
And yet another article states millennials invest heavily in lottery games believing it’s their best bet for retirement income.
They don’t put much faith in Social Security or pensions and, really, why should they when pensions are disappearing faster than old scratch-off cards and Congress can’t guarantee them they’ll get anything out of Social Security and pensions?
Congressman Steve Cohen says he’s seen no study showing the lottery hurts the state’s poorest people.
Cohen contends low-income residents get a disproportionate amount of benefit from the Hope Scholarship, which has an income-based portion, as well as from the Promise and Reconnect, though he isn’t exactly enthused with the latter programs because they take money from the lottery’s intended purpose.
The Memphis Democrat, who authored the legislation that led to a state lottery in January 2004, says he understands people who play the most are moderate- to lower-income people, and that the biggest winners have been moderate-income folks.
Anecdotally, though, he says one of his colleagues, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a wealthy Wisconsin Republican, has won two big lottery drawings.
Naturally, Cohen gets a little testy when people start beating up on the lottery. As for Lee, the congressman says: “He’s just genuflecting to the evangelicals who are against the lottery.”
Cohen also has serious doubts about organized crime getting involved with state-run sports betting or the lottery.
But whether playing Tennessee’s lottery games hurts the poor disproportionately is not the question.
Since people started playing in 2004, the lottery has produced $4.6 billion for education programs such as the Hope and Wilder-Naifeh scholarships and, in the last two to three years, Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiatives such as Promise and Reconnect.
In other words, millions are going directly to students while the state Legislature trims the amount it puts into higher education.
The question for Lee, then, is how he can back the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, as well as the Hope Scholarship program, without supporting the state’s lottery program?
He can’t because they go together like peas and carrots.
Would he raid the rainy-day fund or just manage the budget better to replace lottery funds?
Lee has actually been short on details for a lot of his proposals. He wants a 15- to 20-year study on education reform and the same for health care, contending we need to rein in the cost of treatment instead of taking a billion dollars annually from the federal government to expand Medicaid, as Dean would do.
Joe Six-Pack isn’t going to disagree with cutting costs, especially if he doesn’t have insurance coverage.
But here’s the thing: By the time the doctors, hospitals, medical clinic, insurance companies, drug makers, sales people, consultants, vendors, pharmacists and their spouses and children get a cut of the game, this stuff gets expensive. Tell one of those to take a 50 percent pay cut and see what happens.
It’s going to take a lot longer than 20 years, maybe an eternity, for those people to give up their money.
Meanwhile, poor people – and folks from any financial background for that matter – don’t mind putting down $5 here and there to try to win $100 or $100 million.
And while we’re thinking about it, has anyone ever heard of sports bookies and number operations?
Once upon in Nashville, you could walk into any store and play the numbers. And most people know – or at one time knew – of someone who had a friend who would take their bet and their money.
There’s no telling how much money is leaking from Memphis and Tennessee, on the whole, as people go to Mississippi to gamble and bet on football.
People are going to gamble, Dean says, and the state and local governments might as well reap some benefit from it.
Otherwise, the bookies and the numbers men will be the only ones counting the cash.
It might not be the wise or godly thing to do. Neither is drinking beer on Sunday. But people enjoy it. And, as long, as they put a sizeable piece of their winnings in the church offering every Sunday morning, they can rest assured their winnings will be greater.
Just make sure it’s Lee’s church – or at least the governor’s office. And it probably will be, because De
an’s chances of winning this race in the buckle of the Bible Belt are starting to look about as good his odds of winning the lottery.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based writer with more than 30 years of experience as a reporter, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.