Lotto Blotto?

You may not know that you'll be deciding the fate of the Arizona State Lottery on November 3.

You'll be asked to vote on Proposition 304.
Vote yes, and the Arizona Lottery will be extended until 2003.
Vote no, and you'll have played your last PowerBall in this state, come July 1 of next year. Maybe sooner, if the state's most powerful leaders have their way. Within weeks of Proposition 304's possible defeat, a Scratchers ticket could be as rare as a Phoenix Suns NBA championship.

Arizona's lottery has a devout following. Yet it's likely most of its players are oblivious to the upcoming sudden-death referendum on the games of chance that have generated nearly $3 billion since voters approved it in 1980.

I have yet to see a commercial, hear a radio talk show or read more than a few buried paragraphs about the potential demise of the Arizona Lottery, which would mark the first time a state pulled the plug on its own lottery. As of early September, a poll commissioned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community showed that 71 percent of Arizonans hadn't a clue that the lottery was on this year's ballot.

There's a good reason for that. The enforced public silence on this referendum is part of the ironclad effort by gaming opponents--including Governor Jane Hull and House Speaker Jeff Groscost--to quietly do in the lottery.

They and the other naysayers grouse about lottery mismanagement and declining revenues, but that's just a smoke screen. These folks have a moral objection to gambling, and getting rid of the lottery is their first step down a path that ends on the doorstep of the state's Indian casinos. Today, the lottery. Tomorrow, Indian gaming.

Whatever your opinion of the lottery, in its 18 years it has funded $1 billion in programs that benefit Arizonans, which suggests we should have some kind of meaningful debate on the referendum before we dump millions of future bucks out of the public weal. Last year alone, $76 million went back to the state to maintain parks, protect wildlife, improve public transportation, spark economic development and fund schools.

But you haven't heard much about Proposition 304 and all the funding it generates; nor have you heard about the millions its abolition would cost the state. That's because the lottery's opponents want it that way.

Hull and Groscost have quietly teamed up to silence public debate on the topic. The gag on a discussion of the lottery's merits began last spring in the Legislature, when Speaker Groscost sponsored a provision prohibiting some forms of pre-election advertising on the lottery question. According to the law, lottery ads cannot mention Proposition 304, or describe public programs that benefit from lottery dollars. Overreacting in his attempts to comply, the lottery's executive director has pulled all new advertising until after the election. And now some lottery commissioners, wary of the shenanigans of the powers on high, are afraid to offer a personal opinion on Proposition 304.

For Groscost and Co., it's a good time to quietly be trying to quash the lottery. This election season is the sleepiest in recent memory. We've all succumbed to visions of Monica Lewinsky's sugarplums, and with such distractions, it's easy to explain away the lack of attention to Proposition 304. But Monica and Bill aren't to blame, in this case. Jane and Jeff are.

There's no love lost between Governor Hull and Speaker Groscost, but the two do agree on one thing: the lottery.

Getting rid of the lottery without making enemies of the voters will be tricky, but Hull and Groscost are tackling it.

State law required that the Arizona Legislature renew the lottery this past spring. As speaker, Groscost has the power to kill any bill, including one calling for a vote on the lottery. He could have simply--and very openly--let the lottery wither on his watch, but even he didn't want that kind of political baggage. More than 75 percent of Arizonans say they've played the lottery at least once, and Groscost--whose political aspirations go beyond the state House--can't afford to make that many people mad.

So Groscost launched a quiet assault. When a bill putting the lottery on November's ballot came his way, he tacked on a provision prohibiting the lottery's executive director and commission members from contracting to purchase advertising in two specific areas. One provision, which prohibits the lottery from mentioning Proposition 304 in its advertising, is reasonable. A state agency should not be able to spend public money to campaign for its own continuation.

The second provision prohibits any advertising that informs the public about how lottery revenues are spent. That type of message is a mainstay of lottery advertising, and in years past, you've probably seen commercials and print ads about the projects funded by lottery revenues.

Lottery proponents--namely, the folks whose groups benefit from those revenues--were horrified by the provisions, but were afraid to speak out and offend Groscost, presuming that he might keep the lottery off the ballot entirely, thus killing it.

And so the bill passed, and Governor Hull signed it into law.
Lottery employees and the four sitting commissioners spent much of the summer trying to figure out what that law means. One question: If a commissioner so much as mentioned the lottery, would he be breaking the law? Paranoia reached a frenzied level until, finally, the commission called the state Attorney General's Office.

In an "informal opinion," the AG told the commissioners they can speak out about the lottery as individuals, but must be "careful to avoid acting in concert since such action could be construed as an act of the lottery commission."

Commissioners were warned not to use any lottery resources--staff, offices, stationery--to convey their message.

How exactly can prohibiting certain forms of advertising be legally translated into a gag on the commission if it acts as a group? According to the AG, the commissioners can't hold a press conference in support of or opposition to the lottery.

That doesn't make sense.
So far, the law has served to silence the majority of lottery commissioners. Commissioners Dennis Lambson and Richard Clore didn't return calls. And Commissioner Gary Curtis told me that even with the AG's opinion, he could not express his feelings about the lottery on the record, for fear he'd be breaking the law.

"We're conducting business as usual!" is the cheerful greeting from Geoffrey Gonsher, the lottery's executive director.

But a chat with Gonsher, a review of recent commission meeting minutes and whispered conversations with a lottery insider reveal that's anything but true.

The insider--who's been privy to conversations between lottery officials and members of the governor's staff--says Hull is quietly pulling the plug on lottery programs, with the goal of stopping lottery games as quickly as possible if Proposition 304 fails.

Clearly, something or someone is pressuring Gonsher: He's taking actions that both reduce the lottery's visibility and set it up for a quick shutdown, if Proposition 304 fails.

Gonsher has postponed the lottery's "winner awareness" advertisements until after the election. The campaign would not have violated the prohibition, but instead highlights stories of lottery winners like "Jerry," who lets his potbellied pig pick his lottery numbers.

When asked about his decision at September 23's commission meeting, Gonsher hemmed and hawed and, according to the minutes, said, ". . . if we introduce the awareness campaign in the heart of the political campaign, then we will have folks who will get offended by that, and I'm trying to be politically astute in saying I do not wish to offend those folks because we need to work with them in the future."

For instance, at the next department agency job he gets, when the lottery goes down. (Gonsher's state tenure includes stints at the Corporation Commission and the Department of Weights and Measures.)

Gonsher also made the call to stop printing Scratchers tickets until after the election. The last tickets were printed the third week of September, and will last only until December, according to lottery spokeswoman Laura Plimpton.

Finally, the insider observes, Gonsher made the pessimistic call to delay procurement of new equipment for online lottery games.

Hull executive assistant Stuart Goodman acknowledges that his boss made the call to pull the "winner awareness" ads and hold off printing Scratchers and issuing contracts until after the election, but insists it was just a business decision.

"It just didn't make business sense to go in and do something if the lottery for some reason were to go away," says Goodman.

The lottery employee responds, "That doesn't make sense, because we're in existence until we're told to go away."

The end result? If Proposition 304 goes down, many lottery games will likely end long before mid-1999. And even if, despite the information blackout, Arizona's voters decide to keep the lottery, the games will probably suffer, because of the current demobilization. The insider suspects it could take months to get back up to speed.

As a result, lottery revenues will dip. And that will give Groscost, Hull and Co. fodder for the next round.

Contact Amy Silverman at 229-8443 or at her online address:

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