DESPITE serious questions regarding their morality and fiscal efficiency, state lotteries are booming across the United States. More than half the states - 27 - now legally sponsor these gaming plans. Five lotteries were voter-approved just last November. Others appear to be moving in this direction. Wisconsin voters will weigh the matter on April 7.
And now on the horizon is a proposed multi-state lottery that, its backers say, could further boost revenues of participants and offer jackpots of $80 million or more.
When presented with a ballot issue, so far only North Dakota voters have rejected a state-sponsored lottery.
Lotteries tend to thrive in the Northeast and industrial states. They are less popular in the South, particularly the Bible belt.
Strong opposition continues to come from religious groups, including politically powerful Southern Baptists, who voice their opposition on moral grounds.
Other lottery opponents point out, as they have in the past, that state-sponsored lotteries are a regressive form of taxation that disproportionately hurts the poor; lotteries put the government in the position of encouraging people to gamble; and when all is said and done, most people lose.
Lottery backers stress, on the other hand, that the populace is free to choose in a democratic manner whether a state should sponsor such games of chance; those who oppose gambling for religious, moral, or other reasons don't have to play; and that the general public is ``always a winner'' in terms of increased revenues for education and other worthwhile state endeavors.
This last argument has often been the trump card of gaming interests lobbying voters to back state-sponsored lotteries. Such was the case in California when - after years of lawmakers' barring the door - the electorate overwhelmingly endorsed a lottery in November 1984 when assured that over one-third of the money generated would go to schools for previously ``unaffordable luxuries.''
The first year in operation, almost $700 million in gambling receipts were earmarked for school purposes in California. The money was used, among other things, to hire more teachers, repair classrooms, and initiate anti-drug abuse programs.
Recent reports out of the Golden State, however, indicate that the lottery bonanza for education has lost some of its luster.
Estimates for this year are that only $500 million in school revenues are expected from the lottery. And state school chief Bill Honig says this money is going to be swallowed up by routine expenses - not for special programs or items that the state budget is too strapped to cover.
In fact, as school needs outstrip available school funds, Honig and other California school administrators now are warning school districts to no longer count on lottery proceeds as a guaranteed source of funding for extra projects.
And local officials - many of whom originally saw the lottery as a money machine to remedy their fiscal woes - are starting to have their doubts.
Ted D. Kimbrough, superintendent of the Compton Unified School District, is quoted as saying: ``Our worst fears are coming to pass: The lottery is going to supplant other funding.... They [state legislators] should clearly fund education and not use gimmicks like the lottery. This uncertainty erodes the stability of school districts.''
And Norman B. Eisen, superintendent of the Whittier Union School District, told the Los Angeles Times that the lottery is ``hurting more than helping'' and that he would like to see it repealed.
California, as with others who have made the commitment, will likely have to sink or swim with the lottery, as least for awhile.
The experience here, however, should make other states pause before they jump into this gambling pool to remedy financial problems. The bonanza that may be there at first could well disappear as the novelty of this type of gambling wears off.
But suppose the numbers do eventually pay off for state treasuries, and gambling receipts substantially aid sagging education and other public benefit budgets? Is a lottery really a proper activity for government to engage in?
Some critics make a distinction between running a lottery with the authorization of the people and ``promoting'' it. Norman Cousins, longtime editor of the Saturday Review and now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, has written: ``No force on earth can prevent people from throwing their money away, but government should not entice them or cheer them on.''
Such government enticement, many believe, is an encouragement to compulsive gambling and its too often devastating effects on individuals, families, and society.
``The Christian Science Monitor Reports'' will air a TV program this weekend on lotteries. Check local listings.