I’m going to add a few details to Max’s earlier post about developments at the Capitol today concerning Department of Corrections funding and the Arkansas lottery. Tomorrow I’ll have updates on the third and final subject of the special session, the teacher insurance fix (or non-fix).
*NO OVERTIME PAY FOR CORRECTIONS WORKERS
As expected, the Joint Budget Committee allocated $6.2 million out of general revenue to pay for additional beds to house prisoners in county jails, which have been overcrowded in recent months to the point of crisis.
Whenever the subject of jails and prisons arises in committee, Rep. Jim Nickels brings up the point that the state is chronically failing to pay its corrections workers the full wages they’ve been guaranteed. These employees collectively are owed around $8.7 million in overtime pay — much of it for working on holidays — but there’s a funding gap in the Department of Corrections budget that the legislature thus far has not addressed. Nickels proposed a bill Monday in the Joint Budget Committee that would have drawn $5 million from surplus funds to put towards the shortfall.
Nickels makes a strong argument: if we can find $6.2 million for more jail space for inmates, why can’t we find another $5 million to make good on some of that back pay? Most legislators, it was clear, simply were not eager to ponder making another decision in the midst of a session that was promised to be open-and-shut. Many seemed visibly annoyed. But Nickels, who is term-limited out of his seat this fall, had nothing to lose in forcing a roll call vote on the issue. Though the measure failed to obtain the 29 votes needed for passage, those members who did cast a vote were evenly split — 19 Yeas, 19 Nos.
*MONITOR GAMES BANNED FOR LOTTERY, FOR NOW
Not so much as a whisper of a fight on this one…or at least not in public view. The lottery commission’s attempt to institute “monitor-style” games such as keno to boost flagging revenue has been temporarily forbidden, due to a bill supported by a contradictory coalition of anti-gambling advocates and existing gambling interests (racetrack/casinos like Oaklawn don’t want competition from the lottery). The bill bans such games until the legislature can revisit the issue in the full 2015 session; that’s a better deal for the lottery than an earlier version of legislation that would have made the ban permanent. Bishop Woosley, the lottery’s director, told the House Rules committee that he wouldn’t oppose the compromise measure.
Does this mean the scholarship program funded by the lottery is in serious budget trouble? The scholarships have already been pared back, thanks to declining lotto sales, and the new monitor-style games were supposed to shore up the budget. Woosley said he wasn’t sure whether the Lottery Oversight Committee — which includes Sen. Jimmy Hickey, the main driver behind the effort to ban monitor-style games — would take an active role in coming up with alternatives.
After the meeting, Woosley offered an explanation for why revenue is declining. Lotto revenues are driven by public enthusiasm for playing their games, and such enthusiasm is a function of novelty. The experience of other states indicates that when a new lottery is created, sales tend to slowly decline after an initial spike of interest.
“You start out strong and slowly creep down to a plateau,” he said. “All of our comparisons are ‘how did i do this month compared to the same month last year?’ Well, we’re very likely to go down because we’re in that place in our lifespan where you go down every year.”
Adding new types of games boosts enthusiasm. That means more revenue…but then, as the newness fades, so do ticket sales. The Arkansas lottery introduced a great deal of games all at once in its first few years, though, so it’s a struggle to find new things to interest the gambling masses.
That’s why the lottery commission decided to implement monitor-style games, Woosley continued.
“One of the issues we have, and why we’re standing here today, is that the previous administration introduced a lot more games…a lot faster than you’ve seen in the past [in other states]. That is how a lottery tries to maintain a kind of normal arc, but that has left the barn, so to speak. I’m trying to find other games that will help get new players and get players to come back…We’re not doing anything out of the ordinary…it’s not unusual to try to find new games over the course of time to get players’ attention”