Something historic is happening at the Arkansas Legislature this week.
It isn’t just that the legislature is meeting under a special session–although that is rare.
It isn’t just that the legislature is meeting in the Old State House for the first time in more than a century–although that is historic also.
No, this special session of the Arkansas Legislature is historic for those reasons and one more: It marks the first time since 2009 that lawmakers are prepared to tell the Arkansas Lottery Commission “No.”
After voters passed the lottery amendment in 2008 legalizing state-run lotteries in Arkansas, legislators established the Arkansas Lottery Commission and wrote laws governing the Lottery’s operation. The bill’s drafters used a lot of words to say very little: The Arkansas Lottery is one of the most unregulated lotteries in the nation. It has a legislative oversight committee that does not actually oversee its actions; it is not required to dedicate a minimum percentage of its ticket sales to college scholarships–even though other state lotteries are. The Arkansas Lottery is managed by high-paid executives who seem to answer only to the panel of appointed lottery commissioners. The Arkansas Lottery does not have any meaningful, outside accountability built into its infrastructure, because, as lawmakers repeated over and over again in 2009, “You can’t tie the hands of the Commission.” Lawmakers believed the best way to maximize college scholarships was to give the Lottery as much unfettered freedom as possible.
For almost five years the Arkansas Lottery has operated with virtual autonomy in state government. The Lottery has rolled out more gambling more quickly than any other state lottery we know; the percentage of revenue it allocates for education is one of the lowest in the nation; the number of dollars it actually puts toward scholarships is worse than other states; its expenditures are higher than other state lotteries; and the state has been forced on multiple occasions to reduce college scholarship funding because of the Lottery’s shortcomings.
In spite of the Arkansas Lottery seeming to be an exercise in disaster, lawmakers have been somewhat reluctantly to pass new lottery regulations. That all changed in the past few weeks when the Arkansas Lottery Commission passed a motion in direct defiance of Arkansas legislators.
After hearing a sales pitch for the so-called “monitor games” lottery officials want to install across the state this fall–games like Keno and bingo–legislators on the Lottery Oversight Committee voted not to approve the games. Unfortunately, the lottery law passed in 2009 does not actually give the oversight committee the power to affect the Arkansas Lottery–it’s more a way lawmakers can express their opinions on lottery activity and hear reports from the Lottery Director. As a result, the Arkansas Lottery Commission voted the very next day to approve the monitor games in spite of the lawmakers on the oversight committee.
The editorial staff at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wryly described this as “the equivalent of a state agency’s sticking its thumbs in its ears, waving its hands, and saying ‘neener neener.'”
After approving the monitor games, lottery commissioners further thumbed their noses at lawmakers by refusing to give Lottery Director Bishop Woosley the authority to negotiate with legislators over the games–despite the fact that Woosley routinely speaks with legislators about lottery operations.
Fast-forward to today. The Arkansas Legislature is in special session, passing legislation to ban monitor games until March, 2015, when lawmakers will have a chance to revisit the issue during their regular session. Legislators are speaking candidly to one another about how they created the Lottery Commission and they can change it. And Lottery Director Bishop Woosley is testifying before lawmakers about how lottery officials are “open to discussion and happy to help” with the debate over monitor games.
You can believe legislators are going to come under a lot of pressure to lay off on the Arkansas Lottery as lottery vendors and others join the discussion, but down at the Lottery Commission they seem to have changed their tune a little.
I guess finally being told “No” for once has a way of doing that.