A week and a half ago, the two Alabama gubernatorial candidates, Republican candidate Dr. Robert Bentley and Democratic candidate Ron Sparks, debated on many issues spanning BP, taxes and infrastructure. Some of the answers given by both sides were good, and some were so lackluster that they could put an insomniac to sleep.
Yet, there was a recurring theme in the answers by Sparks — the dream for every recent Democratic candidate for governor. Yes, the lottery debate is back.
Throughout the discussion, Sparks continually hammered Bentley for opposing a lottery — a statement for which clarification is needed, since Bentley is personally against a lottery, but would allow a statewide vote to take place to settle the issue. Sparks also offered the lottery as a panacea to all the state’s woes. According to him, the lottery could fund infrastructure, education and healthcare all at the same time, and never go broke.
But I am not writing to skewer Sparks’ statements; rather, my issue is with the concept of a lottery itself. Unlike many Alabamians who despise the lottery based on amorphous Biblical arguments, my disgust for the lottery stems from simple economics.
The first issue with any lottery is the amount of benefits students will receive due to such a system. While proponents say this will fund scholarships galore, it is almost universally true that real payouts go down as a lottery ages. This can be seen in Georgia, whose HOPE scholarship is the oft-cited example in this state’s lottery debate.
After its startup in 1993, advocates of the HOPE scholarship have pointed to the number of grants issued, but just by looking at the numbers from the Georgia Student Finance Commission, scholarship awards have flat-lined since 2002 despite massive population increases.
Furthermore, lottery proponents will not tell you that many of these students lose their scholarships after the first year due to academics, or that many students choose cushy majors to grade-inflate their way into renewal. So due to the law of unintended consequences, there is now an imbalance of specialties since everyone is afraid of losing their ability to go to college.
What students get the awards in Georgia?
In the beginning, the standard was a B average, equivalent to a numerical average of 80. Over time, the standards were raised to a GPA of 3.0, or an 85 average, since the program was going broke. This means that the yard stick is a moving one, representing a slight renege on Georgia’s original agreement with students and parents.
Also, the standards increase has an additional effect on the demographics of HOPE recipients. As we all know, higher family incomes mean a higher probability of exceptional academic performance, which means people who the lottery was originally designed for — the poor — are being shut out.
While Sparks and his fellow advocates vow this would never happen in Alabama, numbers do not lie, and in the end Mountain Brook students would be getting more grants per capita than students from Greene and Dallas Counties.
The largest conflict I have with a lottery, though, is from whom the money is raised: the poor. The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan think-tank, has published several memos showing that while the amount spent on a lottery may be flat, the poor spend a greater share of income in hopes of getting out of their dire situation.
Zip code analyses for both the Texas and Illinois lotteries have constantly shown the highest ticket sales are in impoverished regions, while the more affluent areas spend the least as a share of income. Add this to the fact that about 35 percent of ticket revenue goes to the general treasury, making it a highly regressive “sales tax.”
The counter-argument is that it is a voluntary tax in the sense that the state cannot force you to purchase a lottery ticket. But then again, the state cannot force you to buy a television either, which has sales tax, albeit much lower, attached to that item. The result is the poor pay for the education of the middle and upper class while their own children get left high and dry.
It is remarkable that people say Alabama is committing a social sin by having a poor-burdening sales tax system while at the same time sneaking in an even more regressive tax via the lottery.
It would be better to raise sales taxes or property taxes than to charge such a usurious lottery tax and rob the most vulnerable of our society completely blind while giving them a false hope for the future. Nevertheless, I have hope that Alabama will soundly defeat the lottery if and when it comes up to a vote.
It’s time to defeat this menace once and for all, and begin looking for our own unique solution to guarantee an adequate post-secondary education for all Alabama students. Only then will saying, “Thank God for Mississippi!” when it comes to our education system become a thing of the past.
Gregory Poole is a graduate student in metallurgical engineering. His column runs biweekly on Wednesday.