State lottery proposed to halt Louisiana's financial problems

Louisiana lawmakers are meeting this week in special session, trying to stave off financial disaster. ``There's a real sense that the state is coming apart,'' said one Cajun senator over the weekend. ``We've got a mounting deficit, a governor who is at his all-time low in popular support, an oil industry in depression times, and state departments that have already been cut to the bone. No one really knows what to do.''

Lawmakers are hoping to raise revenues without raising taxes, a challenge they admit will be difficult. ``We're in a heck of a fix,'' Rep. Raymond Laborde (D) of Marksville told reporters. ``I don't see 70 votes for any kind of revenue proposal.''

One proposal, though, that has garnered a good deal of attention is Governor Edwin Edwards's bid to establish a state-wide lottery. The Democratic governor claims a lottery could bring Louisiana more than $200 million a year.

Louisiana's problem these days is oil's depressed price. One year ago, Louisiana oil was going for more than $30 per barrel; today it fetches barely $15. The drop has cost the state millions of dollars in revenue and leaves it with a projected 1987 budget deficit of more than $400 million, the largest in Louisiana's history.

Governor Edwards says the lottery ``is an issue which has popular support. It is an issue whose time has come.'' Of lawmakers reluctant to embrace the idea, Edwards says, ``They really don't have any other option.''

Under the governor's plan, 75 percent of the projected $200 million in annual lottery revenue would be used for a general educational fund with the rest going to operational expenses.

The lottery proposal won a major victory this week when the House Ways and Means Committee voted to send the measure to the Senate floor.

But even if the lottery passes both houses, lawmakers will be faced with a looming deficit that some studies show could increase by late 1987.

The discussion in both legislative chambers has returned to taxes, and the political danger of imposing them.

Edwards has vigorously argued against all tax-hike proposals, claiming: ``We're all going to suffer. A guy who's unemployed having to pay an extra cent on his food and drugs is going to suffer.... I'm going to suffer because I, too, buy in this state.''

In his antitax stance, Edwards is supported by longtime political foe Ed Steimel, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. ``Who's going to get hurt?'' Steimel asked legislators this week during a debate over a bill to raise corporate taxes. ``The companies won't be hurt. It will be the workers. The companies are going to cut employees.''

Steimel and other business leaders believe Louisiana's best opportunity for saving itself will come through education and economic redevelopment, a process he admits may take years and will not affect Louisiana's immediate future.

Meanwhile, despite the hopes attached to a lottery, a sense of despair is settling over this capital.

Even the normally ebullient Edwards is somber. Urging lawmakers to look for new ways to raise revenue, the governor said, ``I'm imploring you - the 11th hour is here.''

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