Maine state lottery: so far it's a gamble that hasn't paid off

For the first time since state-run lotteries began springing up nearly two decades ago at least one of them may be withering away. Maine Gov. Joseph E. Brennan, concerned over a decline in revenue produced by this form of legalized gambling in his state, is considering a move to end the lottery.

Similar dissatisfaction abounds among state lawmakers and at least two proposals, one to abolish the operation outright and another to radically reorganize it, have been readied for debate in the 1981 legislative session.

The uncertainty over the future of the Maine lottery comes at a time when lotteries in Arizona, Colorado, and the District of Columbia are on the way, having received voter approval in the Nov. 4 election.

Of the 14 states that currently have this form of legalized gambling, only Maine and Vermont have encountered revenue-decline problems in recent years. In Vermont, the situation "seems to have been turned around," explains Duane Burke, director of the Maryland-based Public Gaming Research Institute.

The Maine problem, say Mr. Burke and observers on the scene, can be partially attributed to the small population of the state. They note that lotteries tend to be financially more successful in larger states with large numbers of blue-collar workers.

State lotteries, which netted some $2.6 billion last year, have grown at a more modest pace during 1980, says Burke. He notes that present projections indicate revenue increases are "running slightly ahead of the rate of inflation."

Critics of the Maine lottery, including state Rep. Louis Jalbert of Lewiston, say they believe the program "was oversold from the start" and never came close to bringing to Maine coffers the projected $10 million a year.

Thus far, the biggest yield was $2.6 million for the 12 months ending June 30 , 1976. In each succeeding year the revenue generated dropped. Last year only

Lottery foes maintain that it is time to close the operation down before it begins to lose money.

But they concede that prospects for such legislation are considerably diminished by the state's fiscal problems, including an overall shortfall in tax receipts. Hopes remain that the lottery will become a significant contributor to the state's income.

In the view of Richard J. Carey, the state lottery director, a good part of the Maine lottery's decline stems from the recession that has hit some parts of Maine particularly hard, bringing high unemployment with it.

"Things are beginning to turn around," he insists, holding that the daily "numbers game" introduced last July "has been doing quite well."

The lottery commission, responding to a warning from Governor Brennan to get the program on track or prepare for abolition, has voted to drop its weekly drawings, effective Jan. 22. This has been the least successful part of the agency's gambling program and its elimination will chop operating expenses by $ 150,000, according to Mr. Carey.

Brennan never has been supportive of the lottery. In 1974, when he was Democratic floor leader in the state Senate, he vigorously opposed the proposal that established it.

Sources close to the governor suggest that, short of outright abolition, he might push for legislation to greatly increase his voice in how the lottery is run, through a strengthened executive director.

Although voter approval is not needed to abolish the lottery, some who are backing legislation to end it hold that the people should have a say in the matter. They note that the state-run gambling operation came into being only after it was supported 155,000 to 90,000 on the 1964 statewide ballot.

Besides Maine and Vermont, the other states with lotteries are Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey , New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.