IMAGINE THAT South Carolina ran the liquor stores, like North Carolina and 16 other states do. And state legislators realized they could raise a lot more money to pay for, oh, college scholarships if they sold a lot more liquor. And they could sell a lot more liquor if they got really aggressive about encouraging people to drink.
You can see the ad campaign now. Wait. No. Let’s not see the ad campaign now.
Instead, let’s acknowledge how outrageous such a plan would be. How utterly bankrupt. How, no matter how much contempt you might have for elected officials, it is simply not conceivable that they would encourage people to buy and consume more liquor.
Because while some people use liquor responsibly, others don’t. They drink too much. They beat up their significant others. They get in the car and kill people. This happens too much when government and the broader society send the message that alcohol needs to be consumed in moderation. Imagine what would happen if government were sending the opposite message: that you’re actually being a good citizen when you drink and drink and drink.
Again, don’t imagine. Instead, ask yourself this question: Why would our government ever encourage us to nurture any kind of addiction? And why would we allow it to do that?
Now consider this report from a subcommittee meeting last month at the State House:
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg — who put some fault on the Legislature for pushing the change in the grading scale, approved by the State Board of Education — asked (S.C. lottery director Hogan) Brown whether lawmakers should give the lottery more money for marketing.
“I’m interested in what the lottery proposes to do to help us fix this mess we have gotten ourselves in by lowering the grading scale,” Cobb-Hunter said. “The budget chickens are going to come home to roost over the next two years, and I believe the time for us to have this conversation is now, not when all these kids with lower grades are eligible.”
Maybe the idea of the state actually subsidizing more lottery advertising won’t go anywhere. But while Rep. Cobb-Hunter’s question was the most pointed I’ve seen, she is far from the only legislator who wants the lottery to fix the problem the Legislature created when it allowed the Education Department to lower the bar for lottery-funded scholarships. Indeed, the headline of that article summed up the situation nicely: “Officials hopeful SC lottery can pay for added college scholarships.”
The only way the lottery can do that is by enticing people to play the lottery more, or by enticing more people to play the lottery.
Before Rep. Cobb-Hunter tossed that third option on the table, I would have said there were two ways the Legislature could deal with the huge increase in lottery-funded scholarships: further increase the amount of tax money it spends each year to subsidize the scholarships, or restore the standard. There still should only be two options.
Because South Carolina came late to the lottery game, we were able to learn from other states’ mistakes. Among the most important lessons: Keep a tight control on promotions. As the National Gambling Impact Study Commission reported in its landmark study, state lottery promotions give people who know they can’t afford to gamble a great way to rationalize their irresponsible behavior.
Private-sector gambling is enough of a temptation to people with addictive personality types, as we saw when video poker stretched its tentacles into every nook and cranny of our state. But when the state runs the gambling, when the state makes you think you’re actually helping people by doing something that is bad for you, it makes it all the more difficult to resist.
“When Colorado plays, everybody wins,” that state’s lottery slogan went. The Missouri lottery promised: “It makes life a little richer for all of us.” Other state campaigns have ridiculed students for studying and adults for working and pounded into people the message that the only way to get ahead is by gambling. That they’re suckers not to gamble.
Nearly half of us voted against creating the lottery, and we had enough clout to convince the Legislature to place some very modest restrictions on lottery promotions: It limited the type of advertising that could be done, and just to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, it limited the amount. That wasn’t enough. We should have insisted that our government not do anything to try to turn people into gambling addicts. That it not try to entice gamblers to gamble more than they can afford. That it simply provide the opportunity to gamble, like alcohol-control states do with alcohol.
The very least we can expect of our lawmakers is that they stick to those extremely modest restrictions on gambling promotions.
The solution for the rising cost of lottery scholarships is not to create more gambling addicts. And frankly, it’s not for taxpayers to further subsidize a program that we were promised would be funded by the lottery.
The solution is for the Legislature to stick to its standards and declare that it doesn’t matter how the Education Department defines an “A” or a “B.” The Legislature defined the criteria for state merit scholarships years ago, and that definition stands: a minimum high school average of 85 percent.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.