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Arkansas lottery bill nearly ready for review

Feb 2, 2009, 3:24 pm

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Arkansas Lottery

When lawmakers finally get their hands on the bill to create the Arkansas lottery, they may want to find a comfortable chair — they'll be reading for a while.

"When it's filed, you will understand why it's taken so long," House Speaker Robbie Wills said in an interview in his office. "It's going to be over 100 pages."

Wills filed a shell lottery bill in the House before the session started, after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to create a state lottery to fund college scholarships in the November general election.

Sen. Terry Smith, D-Hot Springs, filed a matching bill in the Senate. Neither version has been amended to add details. On Friday, Wills said he is still weeks away from filing the full legislation, but a draft could be in lawmakers' hands as soon as this week.

"There'll be details, because we'll be sharing this with members," he said.

Wills has been working with an informal group of House and Senate members on the lottery details, holding about two working meetings a day. The inner circle includes Reps. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia; Johnnie Roebuck, D-Arkadelphia; Bill Abernathy, D-Mena; Gregg Reep, D-Warren; and Sens. Steve Faris, D-Malvern; Mary Anne Salmon, D-North Little Rock; and Tracy Steele, D-North Little Rock, among others.

The portion of the legislation laying out the business model for the lottery is "set and ready to go," according to Wills. He said the bill would create a lottery commission with nine members, three of whom would be appointed by the governor, three by the House speaker and three by the Senate president pro tem.

The commission would select the director or CEO of the lottery and hire a vendor to operate the lottery. Wills said he has no one in mind for the director's job, but he is aware of three vendors operating in the U.S.: Intralot, based in Athens, Greece; GTECH, based in Greenwich, R.I.; and Scientific Games, based in New York.

"If there's others, they're certainly going to be welcome to respond to the RFP (request for proposals)," he said.

The commission would answer to a legislative oversight committee, Wills said. The bill also would create a retail advisory board to serve as a liaison with retail businesses that sell lottery tickets.

"The business model, I think we've got that right, because we're following the best practices that other lotteries have put in place that will allow us to be successful," Wills said.

As for the scholarships the lottery will fund, Wills said the bill would create a "starting point."

"The Georgia Hope Scholarship program of today is much different than the first year after the Georgia lottery was implemented," he said. "What we're trying to do is get the framework in place and let scholarship programs grow."

The first scholarships should become available in the fall of 2010.

"We don't want to create the expectation that next year we're going to have full scholarships for every single person who wants to go to college," Wills said. "We would all like to work towards that, but that's going to take a long period of time, and it's going to take the lottery being successful and people having confidence in the operation of the lottery."

Wills does not want to do away with the state's existing 21 scholarship programs.

"We're not wanting to scrap what we have in place. What we're wanting to do is streamline the application process so it's simpler for families and students, and add a 22nd scholarship that, again, it would probably start small but it could potentially be a major scholarship," he said.

The scholarship would be universally available, open to traditional and non-traditional students alike, Wills said. He would not say what grade point average would be required to get or maintain a scholarship, but he said Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's recommendation of 2.5 "sounds good."

Halter, who led the drive to place the lottery amendment on the November ballot, has estimated the lottery would collect $100 million a year for scholarships. The state Department of Finance has estimated the net proceeds would be $55 million.

"My gut feeling is it's going to be on the higher end of that scale because of some of the business decisions we're making with this, given the commission's flexibility — you know, allowing them to basically operate like a business," Wills said.

Lawmakers working with Wills on the bill said they had high hopes for the legislation.

"It's going great. We're coming to a consensus," Roebuck said. "I hope we'll be there shortly."

"I'm happy with what I'm seeing," Abernathy said. "I think the people will be happy when we get our draft done and it gets tweaked by the powers that be."

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