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In Georgia governor's race, lottery money is a hot topic

As they enter the final week of campaigning, Georgia's candidates for governor are debating the intricacies of Florida's budget. No, that's not a typographical error.

Across the state and over the airwaves, the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have been talking about what happened to Florida's lottery proceeds in recent years.

As they describe it, the lottery money was wasted. And they are promising not to make the same mistake here.

It may be a sign of how little else there is to talk about in Georgia, but Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, the Democrat, and state Rep. Johnny Isakson, the Republican, have worked their disagreements over how to spend Georgia's lottery proceeds into the dominant issue of the campaign.

And they are using Florida's lottery as the prime example of how not to do it.

Indeed, if you listened to the candidates long enough, you might forget one important fact. Georgia doesn't have a lottery.

But since both candidates support placing a lottery referendum on the ballot in 1992 and the polls show it will pass overwhelmingly, Miller and Isakson have gone beyond debating whether to have a lottery.

Instead, they are talking almost exclusively about what to do with the money when it begins to roll in _ in late 1993 or early 1994.

If that seems an odd issue to debate in 1990, it is only one measure of the impact that Florida's lottery has had on Georgia.

When the Florida jackpot grew to $105-million this summer, Georgia's newspapers and television stations covered it breathlessly. Thousands of Georgians drove across the state line to Jennings to purchase tickets.

In the midst of all this, Miller promised that if he were elected governor, he would bring a lottery to Georgia. At one point, he even slipped across the state line to be photographed at a North Florida convenience store, triumphantly waving a handful of lottery tickets.

Lottery fever worked for Miller in the Democratic primary. Touting it at every turn, he swept through a crowded field that included former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

But the issue hasn't worked as well in the fall campaign, mainly because Miller's Republican rival, Isakson, also strongly supports a lottery referendum.

As a result, the candidates have been reduced to quarreling over whose plan for spending the lottery money in the late 1990s makes most sense.

But on one point they agree: Florida is no model.

As Miller and Isakson tell it, the problem with the Florida lottery is that it didn't foresee the political temptations it created.

As lottery profits flowed into the Florida education budget, legislators simply subtracted other revenues. Result: not much improvement in Florida's spending for education.

To remove similar temptation from lawmakers in Georgia, Miller says he will propose a lottery education fund, administered by the governor, to which school systems can apply for such things as classroom computers and pre-kindergarten programs.

By keeping the lottery proceeds separate from the main education budget, Miller argues, he can head off what he calls "the Florida problem."

Isakson, too, wants to avoid the Florida problem. But he would do so by turning the lottery proceeds over to local school systems and bypassing the General Assembly altogether.

Each is vigorously heckling the other's proposal.

Last week, Miller appeared at news conferences toting a huge facsimile of a check entitled "Georgia Lottery Proceeds."

Using Velcro-backed cardboard signs, he slapped Isakson's signature on the bottom of the check and "1,200 local politicians" on the top.

Referring to the state's elected school board members, Miller said, "If Johnny Isakson signs that check, here's who it will be made out to."

Then he put his own signature on the bottom of the check and a sign saying "Schoolchildren of Georgia" to the top.

If Isakson's plan is adopted, Miller declared, "We'd be lucky if one thin dime trickled down" to the classroom.

Isakson has been as critical, if somewhat less dramatic, in his descriptions of Miller's plan as a thinly disguised slush fund. His own proposal, he says, would bring the lottery proceeds to the local level _ "where your neighbors know best how to spend the money."

All the talk about what to do with the lottery money has made an impression on the voters. When Isakson appeared last week on a radio show in Columbus, five of the 13 callers wanted to know the details of his lottery plan.

As Isakson conceded over the air, "I don't think anyone realized a year ago what an important role the lottery would play in this election."