Could state lottery success spawn supersize US numbers game?
State lotteries have become the golden goose of the 1980s. The lotteries are showering gold on the states. Billions of dollars in new tax revenues, plucked from the public without any hissing, are filling state coffers and funding a wide range of programs.Skip to next paragraph
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Now Uncle Sam, up to his chin whiskers in debt, is casting his eye toward all that new-found gold. A number of congressmen want Washington to launch a national lottery, which, they claim, could quickly and painlessly raise several billion dollars a year.
In this deficit-worried town, that sounds pretty good to some people.
State officials, however, fret that a national lottery would kill their golden goose. Lottery revenues have been rising by 30 percent or more a year, but the states know there is a limit. At the same time, state governors and legislators have become very dependent on lottery gold.
In Ohio, the state lottery is now the second-largest source of taxes, according to a study by Gaming & Wagering Business magazine. Lotteries are the third-largest source of income in Maryland, Michigan, and Illinois, and the fourth largest in New Jersey.
This has surprised the experts. In 1976, a major federal study of gambling concluded that the potential to raise revenues through lotteries was modest: ``It would be futile for state policymakers to look to lotteries as a substitute for traditional forms of taxation,'' the study concluded.
That was wrong. Last year, Pennsylvania raised more than $500 million from lotteries, New York about $400 million, Illinois about $380 million.
To ensure the continued popularity of the lotteries, the proceeds are often promised to worthy causes. Colorado's lottery profits go to state parks, Pennsylvania's go to senior citizens, Arizona's to transportation, and Massachusetts' to local aid. Rep. Thomas A. Luken (D) of Ohio sees a lesson in this for Washington. ``If you wanted to popularize a national lottery, [give] the proceeds to social security,'' he says. ``Anything for the elderly is popular with the general population.''
The public appears very receptive to the idea of a national lottery, according to a Gallup poll taken last year for Gaming & Wagering Business. Gallup found that by a 62-to-26 margin, people at present favor some form of a national lottery.
Support was strongest among the wealthy (68 percent to 20 percent) and weakest among those with low incomes (45 to 33). Men were more strongly in favor of a lottery (67 to 24) than were women (59 to 27).
Despite such support, there are several reasons that supporters like Representative Luken feel a national lottery is still some time away.
Probably most important, Luken says, is strong resistance in areas that have objected to lotteries for moral or religious reasons.
Utah, with a population largely made up of Mormons, probably will never vote in favor of any form of gambling, a number of experts say. Resistance is also expected to continue strong in the South's Bible belt.
Congressmen from those areas ``are going to take a great deal of convincing,'' Luken says.
Another source of resistance: governors and legislators who now rely on lottery revenues.
Advocates of a national lottery often argue that state lotteries could thrive side by side with one conducted by Washington.