Lottery lights out

Maine never should have gotten into the lottery business. It’s high time that it got out. The lottery has been operating in some form in Maine since 1974 when Governor Kenneth Curtis drew the first numbers. In the 41 years since then, the state never has taken a good look at the impact of the lottery on its poor and unemployed citizens.

State-sponsored games of chance represent the cruelest tax of all. The first installment of a recent three-part Maine newspaper series makes it all too clear how the lottery preys on Mainers who least can afford the gamble by offering the illusory hope of great riches.

Most Maine legislators and other top officials turn a blind eye to the morality of state-sponsored gambling because it represents big money. Ticket sales of $230 million a year pump about $50 million into the state’s operating budget – money that otherwise would have to come from cutting services or boosting taxes.

But it’s no coincidence that for years, Washington County, with the state’s lowest per capita income and highest rates of poverty and unemployment, has seen the highest per capita spending on lottery tickets. According to research by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, six of the Maine towns spending the most on lottery tickets are located in Washington County. In the small town of Waite – population 101 – spending averages $1,313 for every man, woman and child.

Some customers plunk down an entire week’s paycheck hoping against all odds that this week they will strike it rich. Never mind that, except for the small, break-even payoffs that keep players coming back, the odds against winning are astronomical. The lottery itself notes that the odds of winning Powerball, the state’s most popular game, are 1 in 175 million. One is 14,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning in one’s lifetime.

But the lottery has more than tripled its budget for advertising since 2003, targeting new customers and encouraging impulse buys with the promise of “fun and exciting entertainment.”

We do not fault those charged with operating the lottery for doing their jobs. The reality is that the lottery operates, for the most part, like an independent business within state government. And it does so with the sanction of the legislature.

Legislators, not bureaucrats, have the responsibility for developing and setting state policy. Legislators ought to take a closer look at the social and economic impacts of the lottery on the state’s poorest citizens. Research suggests that, for every 1 percent increase in joblessness in a specific region, lottery ticket sales increase 10 percent. Those in Maine’s poorest communities spend as much as 200 times more per person than those in wealthy areas, according to the Center for Public Interest Reporting.

When talk turns to taxes, it often involves equality. But because purchasing lottery tickets is ostensibly a matter of free choice, most folks don’t consider the lottery to be a form of state taxation. The disproportionate burden borne by the state’s poorest citizens is ignored.

Noting that lack of scrutiny, Peter Mills, a former Republican lawmaker, told the Center for Public Interest Reporting: “The state is drunk on the revenue. The political backdrop is [that] no one cares about these people. They have no constituency. The fact that this money should be spent on groceries for their children doesn’t seem to matter.”

Mills is right. It’s time for the lottery to go.


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