A Virginia House committee, casting about for new solutions to the state's budget problems, gave a surprise boost today to a bill that calls for creation of a state-operated lottery similar to ones in the District and Maryland.
Although the measure faces long odds on the House and Senate floors, today's 10-to-8 preliminary vote suggested there is growing backing for a lottery as a politically popular alternative to cutting spending or raising taxes.
A few critics showed up today to denounce a lottery as an immoral scheme that would lure organized crime into Virginia, but legislators seemed more impressed by arguments that it could eventually net the state as much as $200 million in new revenue.
"There are not too many proposals out there that would bring that much money into the state's coffers," said Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington), one of the majority members of the House Courts of Justice Committee who supported the bill in a straw vote. "It has a much better chance this year in view of the economic circumstances of the commonwealth."
In addition, the bill's chief sponsor, Del. J.W. O'Brien Jr. (D-Virginia Beach) said Gov. Charles S. Robb had told him last year he would sign a similiar lottery bill.
Lottery bills are nothing new in the General Assembly. For years, former delegate Ira Lechner, a liberal Democrat from Arlington, championed the idea, only to see it routinely buried in committee. And most members had expected a similar outcome this year.
But this year's bill was sweetened for some conservatives by a new provision that would first require approval by the voters in a statewide referendum before a proposed five-member State Lottery Commission could begin operations.
"I am opposed to gambling philosophically," said freshman Del. Stephen Gordy, a staunchly conservative Republican from Fairfax, who added he was nevertheless voting for the bill because he believes the "voters should have an opportunity" to speak for themselves.
If the bill clears the General Assembly this session, the lottery issue will be placed on the ballot this November.
A parimutuel betting referendum was put to the voters in 1977, only to be resoundingly defeated after a campaign against it by a coalition of conservative groups and Christian clergymen, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
O'Brien said, however, that he would not expect a lottery referendum to meet the same fate. "We're talking about a different type of gambling," he said. "Two race tracks would bring in two million dollars and it would cost that much to police it."
Nevertheless, today's hearing brought out some of the traditional opponents to any gambling proposal in the state. Ena Mae Fox, who described herself as an "independent researcher" from Springfield, cited statistics showing a link between state-sponsored gambling and "unsatisfactory marital situations." A representative from the Virginia Women's Christan Temperance Union argued that states with lotteries, such as Maryland, have been racked by "scandal and corruption."
While some of the committee members appeared amused at the testimony, others seemed to find it persuasive. Del. William T. Wilson (D-Alleghany) noted that the O'Brien bill "would put the state in the gambling business" and thus jeopordize Virginia's reputation as "having the cleanest and best government in the United States . . . in spite of where we're located geographically."