Until Nov. 4, Bill Halter was the politician who had made his way to a second-tier political office with a shoeshine and a resume. Now the lieutenant governor is the man who at long last gave Arkansas a lottery.
Lots of people prefer the first incarnation, but the lottery proved to be so popular with voters that it lends an expedient dimension to Halter's wonkish curriculum vitae. He risked what no other major politician dared to do and won. For that achievement, of ends that may be good or bad, Halter is the Arkansas Times' Arkansan of the Year for 2008.
You can make a case that if taking on entrenched opposition and starting a big new government program is the measure, the distinction would better go to Sheffield Nelson, the former gas magnate who forced the governor and the legislature last spring to enact the first real severance tax on natural gas, which ultimately may bring the government as much revenue as the lottery and in a far more progressive way.
But Halter's lottery will change Arkansas in more profound ways than the mere production of another $50 million to $120 million for a popular public benefit — college scholarships in this instance rather than highways, which will be the primary beneficiary of the new severance tax that the state begins collecting this month.
By year's end probably, Arkansas will be more deeply immersed in the gambling mania that has swept the country and specifically the South. Only seven states, two in the South, have not set up lotteries to pay for some government services. Although lottery backers say otherwise, the receipts will come heavily from people with low incomes. If the lottery produces the $100 million or $120 million that Halter and other lottery backers claim, it will be because Arkansas has a higher proportion of people with very low wages than all but a half-dozen states.
The other side of the coin is that college may become accessible to every single person who would like to go and whose high school work suggests that he or she is even remotely a prospect for successful college study. Last year, the state and the public colleges and universities (figures for private schools were not handy) awarded 24,253 scholarships worth $117.7 million, and some $52 million of state scholarship aid has gone begging because students did not apply for it or could not meet the criteria. For the big program, that is a grade-point average of 2.75 — a B- — and an ACT score of only 19. The constitutional amendment authorizing a lottery specifies that the state and the institutions must continue at least that level of student aid because the lottery is supposed to supplement the state effort, not supplant it.
Finally, Halter's sponsorship of the lottery and his energetic campaigning for it seem to have propelled his career, at least momentarily. He has been something of a pariah in the Democratic Party despite or perhaps because of his easy triumph in his first race for office two years ago. It makes him a player for higher office, the seat of U. S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 perhaps or governor in 2014, assuming he does not challenge Governor Beebe in 2012, which looks now like a reckless gamble.
For a while in 2005 and 2006 Halter campaigned for governor when the untested Mike Beebe was making his first race but then he backed away and ran instead for lieutenant governor on the promise of instituting a lottery. The legislature, even the chamber over which he presided, refused to refer to the voters a constitutional amendment authorizing a lottery so he organized a petition campaign to do it.