Analysis: Can early education push help pass sports betting?
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — They may not seem like a natural fit, but sports betting and early childhood education soon may become inseparably linked at the Louisiana Capitol.
Early childhood education advocates see gambling on sports events as an untapped source of financing for the millions of dollars they say are needed to give Louisiana a high-quality, seamless system of education and care for children from birth until they enter kindergarten.
Some backers of legalizing sports betting in Louisiana see early childhood education — a noncontroversial issue that politicians regularly say they support — as a way to bolster possible passage of the gambling legislation.
So discussions are ongoing to try to dedicate money generated by any proposal to authorize sports wagering to early learning programs, becoming the latest strange bedfellows in Louisiana politics.
“For years now, we have been in the trenches looking for funds, begging for funds, hands and knees. We don’t have enough funds for our earliest learners. This is just another opportunity,” said Paula Polito, chair of Louisiana’s Early Childhood Care and Education Advisory Council and owner of a Jefferson Parish early learning center.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards supports legalizing sports betting and said tying it to early childhood education programs “is a conversation that I am willing to have.”
Lawmakers last year spurned a sports betting proposal by Sen. Danny Martiny, a Kenner Republican. But Martiny and other senators who support the gambling expansion hope a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports betting, combined with sports wagering now happening in Mississippi, could change minds.
They say gamblers are finding ways to wager, traveling to Mississippi casinos and using offshore gambling sites, and Louisiana is losing money that could be made by taxing the activity.
“If we don’t legalize sports betting in Louisiana, it’s not going to go away,” Martiny said.
At least eight states allow sports betting. Others are considering it. Martiny said he’ll file legislation in the regular session starting in April, to authorize sports wagering at Louisiana’s land-based casino in New Orleans, 15 riverboat casinos, and four racetracks. He said he’s trying to match what Mississippi allows, to keep Louisiana casinos competitive.
Sports betting still faces high hurdles to passage in the Legislature, with opposition from conservative groups and pastors who object to increasing gambling options. But if passed, estimates of what Louisiana could receive from taxes on legalized sports betting range from $40 million to $70 million a year.
That’s why the early childhood education community’s interested.
An Early Childhood Care and Education Commission created by lawmakers said research shows young children with access to quality education options are less likely to need special education services in school, drop out before graduation or end up in the criminal justice system. Polito, a commission member, said 90 percent of child brain development occurs in the first four years of life.
Louisiana years ago created a pre-K program for at-risk children, and the commission said 90 percent of needy 4-year-olds now have access to a quality early education program. The commission wants a state financing commitment to similarly help children from birth to three years old with early learning assistance.
The commission estimates the price tag would be $86 million annually for the next decade.
Martiny said early childhood development should be a priority and he’d support dedicating sports betting revenue to the effort.
But he isn’t committing to introduce his proposal that way — and he’s not sure if the dedication would help or hurt the measure’s chances, particularly since some lawmakers believe Louisiana has too much money locked up. He also expects supporters of other causes to try to secure the sports betting money.
“It’s an election year. Everybody’s got their own issue,” Martiny said. “We have people who are against dedications. The governor seems to be in favor of the dedication. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are some people who won’t vote for anything that the governor’s for.”
Even if sports betting legalization wins passage, no money would come immediately.
Local parishes would have to decide in the October election to authorize the activity at casinos and racetracks, Martiny said, and the Gaming Control Board would have to write regulations before wagering begins and taxes are collected.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte