Lottery proposal: Lifeline for Nevada education, or dead on arrival?

North Carolina Education Lottery / AP

This undated photo shows Powerball jackpot winner Marie Holmes, second from left, after she received a check from North Carolina Education Lottery executive director Alice Garland, second from right, in Raleigh, N.C. To the left is financial adviser Dexter Perry and attorney Charles Francis, right. Holmes, a single mother of four, came forward Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, as one of three winners in a huge Powerball jackpot.

Amid all the discussion in Carson City about improving education, one piece of legislation is refloating an old, but likely ill-fated, idea to help fund Nevada’s bottom-tier school system: creating a state lottery.

Assembly joint resolution No. 6 would authorize a lottery through an amendment of the Nevada Constitution, which currently bars the state from running one. The proceeds would support public education as well as “the health and welfare of senior citizens.”

A lottery might seem like a no-brainer for a state with such a vibrant gambling industry. But similar proposals have failed in the Legislature numerous times before, so if history is any indication, this one will be a tough sell, too.

Nonetheless, Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas, is championing the bill because he said he was approached by many of his constituents wondering why a lottery wasn’t allowed in Nevada. So the longtime legislator — who’s termed out after this session — thought he’d give it a try, despite the issue’s poor track record in the capitol.

“I know it’s been introduced several sessions since I’ve been up here, and every time it’s always died. It’s never been able to go forward,” Munford said in an interview. “I just said, ‘I’m gonna give it another shot.’”

At a committee meeting on Thursday, Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, noted that Texas and California have raised billions of dollars for education through their lotteries.

So why has Nevada been so resistant to adopt one? For one thing, changing the Constitution is a very high bar to clear: Lawmakers would have to approve it in two consecutive legislative sessions, which are held a year and a half apart. Then voters would need to weigh in.

In other words, if Munford’s attempt is successful, the soonest a lottery could realistically go live in Nevada would be sometime after the 2018 election. And it would take a huge amount of political willpower to get there.

David Schwartz, the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, said Nevada’s distaste for lotteries stretches all the way back to the state’s infancy. He said the perception about lotteries was very different at the time.

“Lotteries were viewed with a lot of anxiety then, because there was a lot of corruption associated with them, and bad things,” Schwartz said.

Since then, of course, lotteries have proliferated around the country. Nevada is now one of only a handful of states that doesn’t have one, and without the backing of the gaming industry, the situation will likely remain that way.

Munford said he thought he had some casino support early on, but that doesn’t appear to be the case at this point.

A spokesman for Las Vegas Sands said the casino company, which owns the Venetian and Palazzo resorts and is run by the politically powerful billionaire Sheldon Adelson, isn’t supporting lottery legislation.

Similarly, Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine said the industry is focusing on other ways of supporting education.

“Now is not the time to be focusing on a regressive tax which provides no immediate revenue solution, does not create quality jobs, and has not proven to solve revenue problems in other states,” Valentine said in an email. “The gaming industry is instead focused on the serious discussions being held about adequate funding of education, and providing a long-term, broad-based solution to our state’s tax structure.”

Critics have called lotteries a way for governments to raise revenue on the backs of the poor because the cost of lottery tickets is higher proportionally for people at lower incomes than higher ones. Put another way, it's seen as a regressive measure.

Still, Munford is not the only one who thinks it’s odd that the primary gambling state is one of the only ones without a lottery.

“It’s weird to me, because I can’t believe there are people in Nevada who don’t have enough opportunities to gamble now, but it’s also weird to me that we have so many opportunities to gamble and we can’t gamble on this one thing that other states have,” Schwartz said.

Until and unless enough political support builds to clear the constitutional hurdle, though, Nevadans will have to continue driving to nearby states like California and Arizona if they want to buy a lottery ticket.

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