Supreme Court Sports Betting

Crystal Kalahiki pays out a bet in the sports book at the South Point hotel-casino, Monday, May 14, 2018, in Las Vegas.

The sponsor of sports betting legislation said Friday he is open to dedicating revenue from the enterprise for early childhood education, which is suddenly getting a push from a wide range of state and local leaders.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, the president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the New Orleans City Council are all touting the need for new early childhood dollars.

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, who is expected to sponsor a sports betting bill when the Legislature convenes on April 8, said he would consider having the bill dedicate money raised by the gambling for pre-kindergarten services. "I am surely not opposed to that," Martiny said.

"What I have told people that are promoting that issue is it is a great issue but my goal is to pass the legislation," he said.

"Where there is money in the Capitol everybody seems to want it," Martiny said. "If the consensus is that is where the money should go I am perfectly fine."

Advocates contend the unlikely marriage of sports betting and early childhood education could benefit both sides, and has in other states.

Some lawmakers reluctant to endorse betting might do so if they see as raising money for a good cause, like lottery backers promising that part of the proceeds would go to public schools. Promoters of new state aid for early childhood education and care could finally realize a dedicated revenue stream for their cause, which has been battered by budget cuts in recent years.

Doing so could eventually generate $62 million per year, according to the American Gaming Association.

A bid by Martiny to legalize sports betting failed in 2018, prompting the governor and others to say Louisiana is in danger of losing a wide range of revenue to Mississippi, where the betting is legal.

Opponents contend it would be a mistake to expand gambling, and all the problems that they say go with it.

In a meeting on Thursday with the editorial board of The Advocate, the governor reiterated his view that he is open to discussions about earmarking sports betting money for early childhood education.

"I have a reluctance to create more dedications but I want to support early childhood education," he said. 

"If we ever want to close the achievement gap and improve education outcomes in Louisiana we are going to have to do something between zero and three years of age," Edwards. "It absolutely ought to be a priority."

The governor, officials at the state Department of Education and outside advocates say eliminating the waiting list for state services tops the list of needs.

That effort, called the Child Care Assistance Program, helps pay for child care for parents who work or attend school.

It used to serve about 39,000 children. Last year about 15,000 youngsters were covered.

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Today's waiting list is 3,269 children, and typically totals about 5,000.

Gary Jones, president of BESE, told the board on Wednesday that early childhood education needs attention.

Jones said Friday he has asked state Superintendent of Education John White to press the issue in his meetings with the governor.

Jones noted that pre-kindergarten services are not covered by the state's public school funding plan, called the Minimum Foundation Program. That means the programs rely on a wide range of state and federal funding sources, including five sources for four-year-olds alone.

Less than one in five children between birth and age 3 is covered now, according to advocates.

The push to link sports betting revenue and early childhood needs got a ringing endorsement Thursday from the New Orleans City Council.

The panel voted 7-0 for a resolution sponsored by former state Rep. Helena Moreno, now a council member, and Jason Rogers Williams.

Moreno said that, while other states dedicate tobacco tax, gambling and other dollars for early childhood education Louisiana has no such arrangement.

She said the state spends less than 1 percent of general revenue dollars on early childhood issues.

The New Orleans council, in its most recent budget, allocated $1.5 million for the issue, the lone municipality in the state to do so.

Moreno said that, during her time in the Legislature, debates sometimes sparked calls for the New Orleans City Council to pass a resolution on the topic.

She said passing the resolution more than two months before the session "sets the tone we are coming out early for this type of tax dedication."

The panel also called for state lawmakers to allow New Orleans and other municipalities to impose their own fees on sports betting.

Backers have been trying to generate wide support for early childhood education for more than a decade.

A group of lawmakers attended a symposium at Harvard University and said they were stunned to learn that most education and health traits are determined by age 5.

That was in 2008.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.