Not a good bet

A group in Josephine County is adding a new wrinkle to an old scheme — if you have a politically popular government service that needs money, try to get your hands on some state lottery proceeds. The latest version of that effort, like most of those that came before, could do more harm than good.

Voters created the Oregon Lottery in 1984, and from time to time over the years they have changed the formula for distributing the proceeds. Each change requires a constitutional amendment.

The proposals usually seek to earmark a percentage of lottery profits for a particular part of the state budget. As it stands now, lottery dollars go for economic development, resource conservation and K-12 education.

This proposal would send half the state lottery profits to county governments.

Each of the state's 36 counties would get a set allocation, and the rest would be divided based on the amount of money each county contributes to the lottery. That sounds appealing, especially to folks in Josephine County, where a public safety group backing the proposal has calculated the county gets back only half the money it puts in to the lottery each year.

The county group, Securing our Safety, has enlisted the help of perennial initiative sponsor Kevin Mannix, who never met a law-and-order measure he didn't like, to draft the proposed constitutional amendment. It would appear on the November 2014 ballot if backers can collect 116,000 signatures.

The measure would take aim at the 67 percent of lottery proceeds now spent at the discretion of the Legislature. Most of that money has traditionally gone to schools — $415 million in the current state budget. The proposed amendment would cut that discretionary share to 17 percent and give 50 percent to the counties. It would also allow the counties to spend the money on public safety projects instead of education.

The president of Securing our Safety says counties could still spend the money on schools. Sure they could — and face the ire of residents who have seen the crime rate soar because budget cuts have shrunk the jail and eliminated sheriff's patrols.

Oregon public schools have only just begun to recover from years of rising class sizes and lost instructional days. This measure would require the Legislature to find more than $400 million for schools somewhere else in the state budget.

It would also prop up counties such as Josephine, where voters have refused to increase their taxes to pay for public safety after federal timber subsidies disappeared. In addition, the clause allocating revenue based on the amount each county contributes to the lottery would give county officials an incentive to encourage more gambling to boost their county's share.

Maintaining public safety is a worthwhile goal. But not at the expense of public schools.

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