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Anti-lottery forces won't back down

Private citizens and some religious organizations are once again objecting to any expansion of gambling in North Dakota. On Wednesday, backers of a lottery in North Dakota turned in 554 petitions containing 27,041 signatures urging that a lottery...

Private citizens and some religious organizations are once again objecting to any expansion of gambling in North Dakota.

On Wednesday, backers of a lottery in North Dakota turned in 554 petitions containing 27,041 signatures urging that a lottery measure be on November's ballot.

They had to find 25,688 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. It probably will take until Sept. 11 to verify all the signatures, state officials said.

If the effort is successful, voters will decide whether to repeal a state constitutional prohibition on lotteries and have the state join a multi-state game like Powerball or Lotto.

Proponents say doing that will provide new income for the state and recapture dollars spent for lottery tickets in Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana.

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And those proponents are hoping the fourth time's a charm. Voters rejected lotteries in 1986, 1988 and 1996.

Former North Dakota Gov. Art Link, a lottery opponent, said he was not surprised that the latest measure's backers apparently found enough signatures. They concentrated their efforts in the state's larger cities and at the state fair in Minot, he said.

"It's not an indication of how the people feel any different" than they did in the past, Link said. "I suspect the proponents say this is an indication of broad support, but I don't see it as that, particularly."

Link said any new revenue stream created by a lottery would be neither broad nor deep.

"If you look around, these states that say we're buying tickets at Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, their financial conditions is in trouble. They're all having deficit problems. If it's such a money-maker, why do they have that problem?"

It would be better if the state found new revenue by, for example, collecting sales tax lost on out-of-state purchases, Link said.

A lottery is an unfair way to bring in more money, he said. "If you need money for running the business of state, everybody should participate in it fairly," he said. "This only taxes those who are induced to buy a ticket.

"It isn't the place of state government, it isn't proper for state government, to be in the business of enticing its people to buy a chance to become a millionaire."

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Link said he's confident the measure will be defeated.

The North Dakota Catholic Conference, which represents the state's bishops, has opposed past lottery measures. But Christopher Dodson, the organization's executive director, said bishops have not looked closely at the new measure, so he doesn't know if they'll ultimately oppose it.

Unlike most Protestant leaders, who oppose gambling outright as intrinsically immoral, Catholic bishops only will oppose it if they deem that it causes other social problems, Dodson said. "Our position could change, depending on what impact it could have on society," he said.

Methodist Bishop Michael Coyner of Fargo, who also is president of the North Dakota Conference of Churches, said that group opposes any expansion of legalized gambling in the state.

"It seems like the citizens and the Legislature have voted against this consistently in the past," he said. "The only impetus for it is people think it's going to be free money for the state and they don't look at the cost side of the equation."

And the lottery's backers may be jumping on an idea that's outlived its usefulness, he said.

"Nationally, it's been shown that lotteries are on the way out," Coyner said. South Carolina and Louisiana voters ended lotteries there because "they don't prove to provide much revenue in the long haul. It's a very inefficient way to raise money, for those who look at it purely economically."

And in general, lotteries are bad public policy, he said. "It tends to promote an attitude of people trying to get something for nothing, which is not good for government or social cohesiveness."

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Herbert Wilson, a retired Bismarck doctor who has testified against a lottery before the state Legislature, said he fears this effort will be successful.

"I was very proud of the state that they didn't fall for a thing like this," Wilson said. "I'm disgusted that they would be thinking of a thing like this.

"Anybody that believes in gambling to make money is arithmetically challenged."

State Representative Andrew Maragos, R-Minot, who heads the committee backing the new lottery measure, said while voters have rejected previous proposals, this one is different.

It would enable the state to join in existing games, rather than starting its own lottery, he said.

The only cost would be for a central computer, Maragos said. Anyone actually selling Powerball or Lotto tickets would have to invest in their own equipment to do so, keeping a nickel for every ticket sold.

And the 1996 proposal, which 69 percent of voters rejected, focused mostly on video gambling machines in bars, with a state lottery tacked on as an afterthought, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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