1. Archive

Reforms aim to make schools lottery winners

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Coming soon to a television set near you: ads touting how the Florida Lottery helps schools. They're taping them now, taking care to show lots of cute and cheerful children.

This is supposed to make people feel warm and fuzzy about the lottery, which has come, for reasons beyond its control, to symbolize everything the public hates about government.

Then maybe they'll buy more tickets, which haven't been selling as hotly as when the lottery was new and fantasies were uninformed by experience.

Trouble is, the ads will be only half true.

They might as well be set at some of Florida's many prisons, starring sullen convicts instead of smiling kids, or in the halls of a nursing home, hospital or welfare office. Lottery money has been going to those places, too.

That's because it's as impossible to tell lottery proceeds from sales taxes, once the state gets its hands on them, as to separate the sugar from the flour after the cake is baked. Never mind that there's a lottery trust fund; it's the Legislature that decides how it's spent. All along, the Legislature has banked on lottery dollars to replace tax dollars that it might have spent on the schools if it weren't for equally pressing demands from the prisons and Medicaid.

Note that this says might have. There is no way to know. The Coalition to Reclaim Education's Share, a teacher-led political committee, says the schools, universities and community colleges have lost $12.8-billion that would have been theirs if they had kept their 1987 share of non-lottery dollars. That's a big if, however. Another way to look at it would be to say that the lottery helped cushion the schools when the economy went bad in 1990 and the Legislature lost, apparently for eternity, the guts to raise taxes.

No matter. All that does matter is that the Florida booboisie, recalling the 1986 referendum on an "education lottery," believes it was swindled. So far, most of the anger has been taken out on those least responsible: the schools. Legislators smart enough to dread their own day of reckoning have been looking for ways to earmark some of the lottery money _ as with college scholarships last year and, perhaps, construction bonds in this week's special session, but they're dangerously delusional if they think piecemeal fixes will work.

"Continually turning to the lottery as the end-all solution and then it failing, the solution failing, is just like opening a wound. Everytime you open it, it gets a little deeper and bleeds a little more," says Susan MacManus, a public opinion expert at the University of South Florida.

Twelve years after the fateful referendum, voters next November could face not one but two lottery "reform" options.

One is the initiative, sponsored by the Coalition to Reclaim Education's Share, which would guarantee education at least 40 percent of total state spending exclusive of lottery and federal money. That would give the Legislature three years to boost spending, in increments, by $1.6-billion.

The coalition now has 319,748 of the 435,073 valid signatures it needs to get this on the November 1988 ballot. What it doesn't have is the Supreme Court's ruling on whether the petition is properly worded. It has been nearly six months since the court heard arguments, during which the pro-petition side seemed to have the better case. That much delay is ridiculous. Meanwhile, the teachers are still collecting petitions.

"We figure no news is good news," says Cathy Kelly, assistant executive director of FTP-NEA, the larger teacher union.

Granted, the court has 1,100 other cases in its mill, including some 180 death penalty appeals. But the "reclaim" initiative is a relatively simple set of questions, and it is time-sensitive.

The voters' other option could come from the Constitution Revision Commission, where commissioner Alan Sundberg says he will propose an amendment to keep the Legislature's hands off the lottery money. He hasn't worked out the details, but they likely would resemble Georgia's, where lottery money is reserved for college scholarships, pre-kindergarten education and computers and other high technology.

This too would leave the Legislature looking at a $1.6-billion budget hole _ but unlike the teachers' initiative, there would also be a direct hit on school salaries, books and other current expenses unless the Legislature took the vote as a mandate to raise taxes.

The proposals do not conflict, however, and voters conceivably could approve both. That's if they are given the chance.

At the commission, 22 of the 37 commissioners have to agree to send any amendment to the ballot. Perhaps the debate on Sundberg's proposed amendment will help jog the Supreme Court into action on the teachers' initiative. Chief Justice Gerald Kogan is a member of the revision commission.

If any member owes Sundberg a "yes" vote on his proposal, it's commission Chairman Dexter Douglass.

There was an 11th hour lawsuit to knock the lottery initiative off the 1986 ballot. Although the Supreme Court voted unanimously to let it stay, Chief Justice Parker Lee McDonald had expressed some concern during the oral arguments.

"Your group calls this an education lottery. Doesn't that sound misleading?," he asked.

"Political, I would say," said the camlawyer _ Dexter Douglass.