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The Dallas Morning News

Cockfighting, lottery could spice up lively Oklahoma ballot


OKLAHOMA CITY - There is no dearth of drama when it comes to Campaign 2002, Oklahoma style, given statewide contests featuring a pro-football Hall of Famer, a former TV anchorman and a plethora of other well-known political names.

But the traditional statewide races could end up sharing the political spotlight if cockfighting and lottery referendums reach the general election ballot.

A proposed cockfighting ban, political analysts say, probably has the easiest route to a November vote, even though the Oklahoma Supreme Court last week gave cockfighting proponents one final chance to challenge an initiative petition aimed at outlawing the activity. It is unlikely, experts said, that the state's highest court will reverse last fall's unanimous decision that cockfighting opponents had collected enough valid signatures to secure a statewide referendum on the proposed ban. "People are absolutely amazed when they find out we're one of three states [along with New Mexico and Louisiana] that still has it," said Neva Hill, who publishes a weekly political newsletter, The Hill Report, and provides political analysis for public radio's KOSU-FM. "They've [cockfighting proponents] got a tough row to hoe to make a persuasive argument to turn people's opinions on that subject."

Indeed, a recent statewide poll sponsored by the Tulsa World found that nearly two-thirds of respondents would support a referendum prohibiting the activity, while slightly more than one-fourth would oppose the ban. The survey of 752 residents was conducted Dec. 18-29 and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

The lottery proposal is less likely to reach the ballot this year, political analysts said, although a state Senate committee last week approved the resolution that would secure its ballot position, and the full Senate is expected to add its blessing as well. The proposal, however, faces a less certain fate in the state House, where leaders from both parties and religious conservatives are mounting fierce opposition.

If the proposed referendum fails to win legislative approval, however, a private group has announced plans to circulate an initiative petition in an effort to force a statewide vote on the issue. But even if a petition drive is completed this summer, expected court challenges probably would delay its ballot appearance until next year - at the earliest.

Efforts to create an Oklahoma lottery failed miserably eight years ago, when voters in 74 of the state's 77 counties rejected a similar ballot measure - despite pre-election polls showing that around 70 percent supported the issue.

Frosty Troy, longtime political analyst and editor of the bimonthly Oklahoma Observer, said lottery proponents embrace a strategy that "if they kept putting it on the ballot, it eventually would pass. You just wear them [opponents] down."

But Mr. Troy, who opposes the lottery, said troubled economic times could persuade more Oklahomans to support the proposal.

"When times get tough," he said, "people play it."

Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said he never ceases to be amazed that lottery supporters can't take no for an answer.

"It is couched in terms of supporting education and other things," he said. "That's the way they seek to garner support. That doesn't change the fact that government doesn't need to be in the gambling industry.

"Yes, we will always have to face these issues and continue to fight them. But I can assure you that those of us who believe gambling is harmful to our culture are not going to walk away from the battle. And that's not just Baptists. Baptists, Methodists and Assemblies of God all have come together to say this is not good for Oklahoma."

If either or both of the proposed referendums is cleared to be presented to Oklahoma voters this year, it will be up to outgoing Gov. Frank Keating to decide when they will appear on the ballot. Most likely, chief spokesman Dan Mahoney said, they would be ticketed for the general election - to avoid the expense of a special election, not to try to create an advantage for one side or the other in a hotly contested referendum.

The lottery, for example, has "never been much of an issue" for Mr. Keating, Mr. Mahoney said. "It doesn't create industry or do much for Oklahoma. He would not block any sort of public vote on it. He's not avid, anti-lottery."

Mr. Keating, he said, also is not involved in the cockfighting debate, although the governor "would vote for the ban."

Nonetheless, a spot on the general election ballot probably would be good news for cockfighting opponents and lottery proponents, political analysts said, because November voting traditionally attracts the largest turnouts.

By contrast, low-turnout special elections, the experts said, tend to favor those motivated by a particular issue.

For example, cockfighting proponents - including about 10,000 members of the Oklahoma Game Fowl Breeders Association - could represent a significant voting bloc in a special election. Similarly, lottery opponents could wield disproportionate influence in a low-turnout election.

Arnold Hamilton is Oklahoma Bureau Chief of The Dallas Morning News.