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Shelby Co. Voter’s Guide: Amendment Four

October 23, 2014

This is the fifth in a series of articles Back in River City is publishing on key issues and races in the November 4, 2014 election. Early voting is already underway; you may vote at these locations through October 30th. Click here to see a sample ballot.

Amendment Four

cropped-lottery-balls

Tennesseans approved a state constitutional amendment in 2002 to permit a state lottery. That amendment also allowed non-profit organizations falling under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code to incorporate raffles and certain other games of chance into their annual fundraising events. Each event requires legislative approval by a 2/3 vote of the Tennessee General Assembly (TGA). Organizations are eligible for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status if their primary purpose is charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering amateur sports competition, or preventing cruelty to children or animals.

The 2002 amendment excluded veterans’ organizations, which fall under IRS code section 501(c)(19) (defined as “Post or Organization of Past or Present Members of the Armed Forces).” Amendment Four would extend the same rights to 501(c)(19) organizations as those held by 501(c)(3) designates.

Arguments for Amendment Four

raffle ticketsProponents say it is only fair that charitable veterans’ organizations be treated the same as churches, hospitals, and other 501(c)(3) entities.

This isn’t mentioned in news about Amendment Four,  but it may not be a coincidence that a bevy of skillful volunteers have struggled for the past two years to raise $23 million to build a much-needed West Tennessee Veterans Home. Holding an annual raffle couldn’t hurt.

Arguments Against Amendment Four

Veterans’ organizations have a very checkered history in Tennessee. The FBI’s Operation Rocky Top public integrity queen_of_bingo_photo1scandal in the 1980’s generated national headlines about Tennessee’s rigged bingo games, many run by organizations related to veterans. Fortunately, bingo is now outlawed in Tennessee, and Amendment Four’s requirement that a 2/3 majority of the TGA must approve each single event that includes gaming by an approved organization arguably affords protection against the bingo hall conditions that lured organized crime to Tennessee 30 years ago. Even so, the extension of  state-sanctioned gambling creates additional opportunity and temptation for organized crime to benefit from players’ compulsive behaviors.

Veterans organizations may have been intentionally omitted from the 2002 amendment legalizing gaming for 501(c)(3) organizations. A Johnson City Press columnist wrote:

When the then Democratic-led General Assembly finally voted to place a lottery referendum on the ballot in the late 1990s, Nashville was still reeling from “Operation Rocky Top,” which was an FBI investigation into bingo and other forms of illegal gambling in Tennessee. Investigators found bingo games for several charities were being operated by professional gamblers.

These games made millions of dollars, but few of those proceeds were going back to the legitimate charities.

Tennessee Secretary of State Gentry Crowell’s office (which licensed the bingo halls) became a point of interest for investigators, so did powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill who helped gamblers get bingo licenses.

All this came to a head in 1989, which was my first year as a reporter in Nashville covering the General Assembly. The investigation resulted in one state House member going to prison and another, state Rep. Ted Ray Miller, D-Knoxville, taking his own life. Crowell also committed suicide days before he was to testify to a grand jury on the matter.

I recall Republicans in the General Assembly at the time arguing that Rocky Top proved state lawmakers could not be trusted to legislate gambling in Tennessee. They urged their colleagues to leave the constitution alone.

Ten years into the Tennessee Lottery, Many Tennesseans still oppose gambling for moral and practical reasons. State-sanctioned gambling may be sold under the feel-good guise of boosting funds for educating needy students, but gambling can also wreck the lives of individuals and families and increase taxpayers’ contributions to correctional expenses.

Back in River City’s Take on Amendment Four

Call us kill-joy moralists, but we don’t see a compelling argument for extending the scope of legalized gambling in Tennessee. It may look like a dandy source of new revenue for state coffers and for benevolent organizations who seek to do good in our communities, but gambling can have undeniable, harmful consequences.

The Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario warns that gambling addiction not only creates financial problems for many families, but can lead to depression; anxiety; isolation from loved ones; verbal and physical abuse of a spouse, child, or elder; and increase risk of suicide. The families most susceptible to being hurt by gambling are those already suffering from job loss, deprivation, and insufficient income.

woman-playing-lotto

A commenter to a 2010 New York Times article had this to say:

Even if one grants the premise that individuals who develop gambling problems should be held responsible for their choices, the damage that gambling causes is not limited to the individuals putting the money down on the table or into the machines. It also affects families and communities. My mother developed a gambling problem in Oregon, where the state relies heavily on gambling revenues to substitute for revenue it is either unwilling or incapable of raising through taxes. I have never understood the appeal of gambling and have never made any decision to gamble beyond blowing $10 on slot machines during my only trip to Vegas . . .

Nevertheless, gambling has ruined the past three years of my life, as I was convinced by my mother to hand over all of my available earnings in an effort to save my family’s house from foreclosure, until finding out that she had actually taken a second mortgage and gambled away all the equity. . .

people do not live in isolation from each other, and while you can criticize people like my mother for being weak-willed and “stupid” . . . I can just as easily point to the irresponsibility of voters and politicians who like government spending, but don’t want to fund it with sufficient taxes, so they choose instead to prey on the vulnerable for extra revenue. State-sanctioned gambling has cost me everything–my savings, my credit, my mother, and my mental and emotional well-being–and I didn’t have to gamble a cent for it to do so.

We are voting No on Amendment Four.

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