Why six US states won't play the Powerball lottery

Some 44 US states are part of the lottery ticket buying frenzy, but for some lawmakers and residents, the downsides of gambling outweigh potential revenue.

Charles Krupa/AP
Commuters in Methuen, Mass., drive past a sign advertising the Powerball jackpot drawing on Wednesday.

Lottery players across the United States are madly buying up tickets to participate in the current $1.5 billion Powerball lottery. But not everyone's game for taking the big gamble. Six states ban the lottery entirely.

Residents of Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, Alabama, Mississippi, and Utah can still participate in the lottery, if they are willing to drive across state lines to purchase tickets. And many are making the trek, prompting some observers to question why anti-lottery states are letting revenue from lottery sales go to other states.

For Alabama, Utah, and Mississippi, objections to the lottery are grounded in religious beliefs.

Religious opposition is prevalent in Alabama, but the view on statewide lotteries is not as absolute among legislators.

Some lawmakers maintain that instituting the lottery would in effect be an additional tax on those who can least afford it.

"The poor spend a large part of their discretionary funds on the lottery, so the studies show," Senator Arthur Orr told local news station WHNT.

However, other Alabama leaders see Powerball participation as a funding opportunity for their state. 

“The reality is our state budget is in a hole so big we simply cannot cut our way out of it,” wrote state Rep. Craig Ford (D) in an op-ed last year. “The only solution is more revenue. Before we raise taxes on working families, let’s look at voluntary revenue streams like the lottery.”

Representative Ford says the people of Alabama should vote on a lottery, and many legislators from both parties agree. But even if legislators don’t agree on using lottery funds for Medicaid and prisons, the state’s two biggest expenditures, Ford says Alabama could designate the funds towards a scholarship fund like their neighbor Georgia. 

“We need to change the current tide, and we have an option to fill that hole in the General Fund budget by bringing a statewide lottery to a vote,” he wrote. “A statewide lottery is a way to fill in the gaps without losing important programs, and it does so in a voluntary way.” 

State Sen. Jim McClendron, (R) and Rep. Alan Harper (R) announced last week that they plan to co-sponsor a bill that would allow the people of Alabama to vote on whether or not to create a lottery in the state. 

In Utah, however, any change to lottery laws is less likely, given the fact that most state legislators belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is opposed to gambling, including lotteries sponsored by governments,” the church explains on their website. “Gambling is motivated by a desire to get something for nothing. This desire is spiritually destructive.” 

In Mississippi, a vocal religious population in Mississippi has kept a statewide lottery at bay, despite an active riverboat gambling industry. Casino owners interested in keeping a corner on the market have joined with religious activists to create a formidable opposition.

The clout of the casino industry has also diminished any possibility of bringing the lottery to Nevada.

“The casino industry has long opposed a lottery in Nevada,” explains the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2014. “They say the more money people are spending on lotteries, the less they have to spend in casinos. The casinos’ position on a state lottery has been so unwavering that it’s entirely unsurprising when a lottery proposal is rejected by the state legislature.” 

The two non-continental US states, Hawaii and Alaska, also reject the lottery, but their reasonings are more diffuse.

The Alaska Department of Revenue created a report on the potential of a statewide lottery, but legislators determined it wouldn’t generate enough money to be successful given the states dispersed, small population. 

Hawaii ties with Utah for the most-strict gambling laws in the country, making gambling of any kind illegal. The state’s opposition is more difficult to identify, but some legislatures have suggested gambling of any kind would hurt Hawaii’s crucial tourism industry

But the rest of the 44 states don’t really mind lottery bans in these six states.

“It’s been awesome,” Rachel Crawford, store manager for a Chevron station in Delta, La., told The Clarion-Ledger last week. The gas station has had to hire extra security for long lines of crowds, as central Mississippi residents drive across the border to buy Powerball tickets. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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