No, Virginia, There Is No Jackpot

CALL it Lotto fever, as Florida newspapers do. Or Lotto mania. Or Lotto lunacy. By any name, the state lottery has been the only game in town this month as the jackpot soared from $6 million to $94 million. On beaches and in restaurants, on talk shows and in homes, the near-record grand prize turns up everywhere in conversation.Never mind that contestants supposedly had a better chance of being struck by lightning than of winning the jackpot, with its 1-in-14-million odds. The hopeful refused to be deterred, waiting in long lines to parlay dollars into dreams of lifetime wealth. At one point, tickets were selling at the rate of 2 million an hour. But no amount of Lotto-induced hope can banish a giant cloud hanging over the Sunshine State - one that has captured even more headlines than the lottery. To head off a fiscal crisis, Gov. Lawton Chiles must trim nearly $600 million from the state budget - $289 million in education alone. Students at the University of South Florida protested by delivering a mile-long petition to the governor's office. At the same time, a group of science professors at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton promised to donate any lottery winnings to the university's College of Science, which has been hit hard by the state's budget troubles. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. When the state established a lottery four years ago, its ostensible purpose was to provide extra money for schools. Although half of lottery revenues must go to players as prizes, education gets 37.5 percent of the money. The rest covers operating costs. But what should have been a windfall for education gradually turned into a necessity to fund basic needs. As a result, before last weekend's lottery jackpot, Florida schools faced an additional $35 million in cuts b ecause of shortfalls in lottery income. This uncertain form of financing sends a dubious message to students: We're willing to gamble on your education. Florida is hardly alone in its dependence on gambling revenues. Thirty-three states, plus the District of Columbia, operate lotteries. Supporters defend the entertainment value of the games. This tax, they point out, is totally voluntary. True enough. But what would happen if potential players, acknowledging the impossible odds, decided to spend their lottery money elsewhere? One young woman seated behind me in a restaurant last week told her dinner companion that her father had purchased $100 worth of tickets for Saturday night's drawing. No one knows how loudly this man might have protested if his taxes had gone up by $100, but how can he complain when his numbers don't win? That's entertainment. Still, consider what that $100 could have bought him in less ephemeral entertainment. A few possibilities: Five hardback books at $20 each. Dinner for four at a beachfront restaura nt. Sixteen tickets for first-run movies. Then there are the humanitarian options, such as food for poor families or a contribution to a charity or church. There is something sad about the frenzied spectacle of hundreds of thousands of people flocking to lottery outlets in the days before a megabucks drawing. The media hype, the green lottery billboards reflecting the latest jackpot increase, the stories of out-of-staters flying in to play their numbers at the nearest convenience store all paint an embarrassing picture of skewed values, counterfeit dreams, and rampant greed. Perhaps the best lottery news this month comes from Minnesota. Legislators there pressured the lottery director to cancel a plan that would have allowed residents to play the state lottery at home on Nintendo video games. Although the plan was only a test, other states were watching with interest, hoping to find new ways to increase the faltering revenue growth of lotteries. A lottery has always been a desperate argument in its pretense of benefiting a state. Financing social programs and schools through gambling is a sad example of trickle-down economics. The gambler's dream - something for almost nothing - pays off only a little better as fiscal policy than it does for the lottery player, and at a cost to everybody's self-respect.

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