What price democracy? Plenty, if you want a Nevada lottery

Jun 12, 2001 11:24 AM

Legislative disappointment aside, the time may never be more ripe to get a state lottery established in Nevada. But it’s going to take some money and a lot of leg work.

The time is ripe because the state needs funding in the worst way to fix an ailing public school system and because the all-powerful casino lobby has repeatedly made it clear that raising the 6.25 percent tax on gaming win, which hasn’t been tampered with since Ronald Reagan was president, is not an option.

There’s a third reason: The casino lobby, which has a perfect record against the lottery - defeating it 14 times in the last 25 years - declared itself neutral in the 2001 legislative session. The effect was to give something like tacit approval to a resolution sponsored by Assemblywoman Kathy McClain to amend the Nevada Constitution’s ban on a state-sponsored lottery.

Earlier this spring, the Democrat-controlled Assembly signed off overwhelmingly on the resolution, but it died in committee in the Republican-controlled Senate.

To change the Constitution without the Legislature, McClain (D-Las Vegas) wants to launch a signature-gathering campaign to get the lottery onto the 2002 general election ballot. By law she needs the signatures of 10 percent of the people who voted in the 2000 general election, and these must be distributed so as to represent 10 percent of those same registered voters in 13 of the state’s 17 counties.

It’s tough, but it’s been done before, and the stakes are more than worth it, McClain says. According to her estimate, a lottery would generate upwards of $370 million in annual sales. What’s left after prizes and expenses, about 35 percent, would be divided equally, with half going into a trust fund that would earn interest and make money for the state for the next 20 years, and half, about $65 million, available every year for schools and for programs benefiting senior citizens.

"We need the money," she says bluntly. "If the people say yes, [legislators] can’t say no."

What it will cost to let the people be heard depends on a number of factors, says Susan Johnson, president of National Voter Outreach, which managed 36 voter initiatives nationwide last year and steered California’s lottery initiative to success. "It depends on when it occurs, whether there are competing initiatives or opposing initiatives," she says.

By far, the most expensive part is getting the signatures.

It’s the geographic distribution that makes it so costly, says Las Vegas political consultant Dan Hart, who ran the successful drive to legalize medical marijuana and has managed the political campaigns of Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates and former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, among others. "I think the going rate is $1.50 a name, and that’s just for a middle-of-the-road issue," he says. "For a more difficult or controversial measure, it will be more expensive."

Adding to the cost is the fact that 2000 was a presidential election and turnout was close to 70.5 percent, or about 613,360 voters. By way of comparison, turnout for the ’98 election was 49 percent.

In actuality, the lottery needs about 88,000 signatures, says Johnson, or 30 percent above the minimum to cover signatures that will be invalidated for one reason or another. By Hart’s estimate, those names would cost $132,000. Tack on other expenses and fees and the cost could climb to $150,000, and that’s probably conservative.

Successful initiatives usually are sponsored by one or more interest groups. The larger and more broad-based the coalition, the more appealing the drive is to voters, Hart says.

While there are any number of well-heeled companies that might stand to profit from sponsoring a successful lottery initiative, Hart says prominent private-sector involvement is not always desirable.

"It’s legal for a private company to get involved," he says. "The question is, is it appropriate. You run the risk that voters might look askance at it."