Intentionally Unreasonable: State lottery gambles with Maine's future

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“Selling hope to the hopeless” was a headline from a three-part series of articles published about the Maine State Lottery last week by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.

The series provided a detailed analysis about – really, more an indictment of – the lottery and the state, and how it targets and exploits our most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the unemployed and the poor.

Amid the thousands of words, dozens of sobering statistics and a bunch of colorful charts and graphs was this undeniable, indisputable, unassailable truth: Maine’s lottery, like others, is primarily a heavy tax and addictive burden on those occupying the lower rungs of an economic ladder pointing toward the illusion of prosperity and hope.

To be clear, lotteries are legalized scams.

And, if such a financial scam appeared on late-night TV or online, we would be outraged. We would drag the companies involved into legislative hearings, where they would be criticized, penalized and publicly shamed before being forced to change their evil ways.

Our political leaders would issue powerful proclamations of condemnation, and television news crews would fill the Statehouse rotunda beaming video snippets of angry talking heads promising that Joe or Jane Politician “cares” about Mainers and that he or she would fix this problem right away.

But, in this case, the scam is theirs. And ours.

You, me, our neighbors and friends, we’re all in on it. In fact, as Maine residents, we own it, and our political leaders manage it, enable it, and are just as addicted to it as is the most desperate player.

Established in 1974 by a statewide referendum, the Maine State Lottery has generated more than $4 billion in sales revenue, returning approximately $2.3 billion in prizes, with the balance going to commissions and about $1 billion to the state general fund.

And now that our lottery generates about $50 million a year for the general fund, the legislative motivation is to squeeze more from this “voluntary” revenue source, not less – even with clear evidence that shows the overall financial hardship facing most lottery players.

“It’s part of the struggle all lotteries are facing. Our demographic is getting older, but our state legislatures are still demanding we return the same level of profits year over year, so you have to find new strategies to engage our players,” Tim Poulin, the lottery’s deputy director, said in the report.

Really? Our elected officials are “demanding” that you induce more people to spend more money feeding the lottery beast to make it easier to manage the state budget?

Even when it is clearly known that many of your lottery players can’t afford basic living needs, never mind losing money to state-run gambling?

Even when it is clearly known that many of your poverty-stricken lottery players deposit gobs of money into the state bank account, buying lottery tickets on Monday, only to require various state funds to survive on Wednesday?

Is that why the lottery spends more than $3 million a year advertising and promoting a brand of hyperbole – “The Maine State Lottery is proud of its commitment in providing the citizens of Maine with fun and exciting entertainment …” – that draws attention away from the desperation attached to it, in favor of the promised “entertainment” value?

When an unemployed parent spends their last $50 on lottery tickets in a desperate, and many times addicted impulse, instead of providing food for their kids, where is the “fun” or “exciting entertainment?”

According to the MCPIR report, residents of Washington County, which has our state’s highest rates of poverty and unemployment, spend $275 per person per year on the lottery, compared with $166 per person in Cumberland County.

In the Washington County  town of Waite, where one in five families live in poverty, the residents reportedly spent $1,313 per capita in 2014 for their “fun and exciting” lottery entertainment.

Down in Kennebunkport, where per-capita lottery spending was just $6 in 2014, there would appear to be a real crisis in regard to those residents not recognizing and appreciating “fun and exciting” entertainment.

Last legislative session our elected leaders considered adding an additional gambling drug to the state for a legion of gambling junkies: Keno. It was suggested/promised that Keno would generate an additional $8 million in state revenue.

Last year our political leaders restructured the state liquor contract to squeeze more tax money into state coffers through a plan that relies on and promotes greater consumption.

A few years ago we added fireworks to Maine with the promise of “fun and excitement,” plus a tax benefit. (Is there a state accountant working out of a dark cubicle in Augusta who can equate the value/cost of recent fireworks-related injuries to our “tax benefit?”)

Since 2005 when slot machines were first allowed in Maine, have people from around the world flocked to Maine to contribute to our economy for fun and excitement – or is it mostly Mainers who lose millions each year? Worse yet, has anyone noticed that our two casinos are now owned by corporations based outside of Maine?

The Maine State Lottery, the possible addition of keno, slot machine expansion and a host of other vice-based activities are problematic here in Maine for many reasons that start with the clear and present danger to our most vulnerable citizens.

There is also the serious branding issue in regard to Maine’s image and the expectations associated with tourism and business development.

Most people who visit and invest in Maine do so because they perceive our state to be better (environment, spirit, attitude) than where they’re coming from. The more we lower that expectation, the more we diminish people’s emotional connection to this special place.

Our many challenges run deep. Poor leadership, bad planning and a statewide blindness to harsh economic realities leave us with an estimated $3-5 billion deficit in capital infrastructure funding critically needed over the next five years.

There will be a continued temptation for our elected officials to avoid the hard decisions needed – in favor of following their own political addictions to further the exploitation and reliance on the lottery, gambling, keno, alcohol consumption, fireworks, etc.

We must tell Augusta to stop gambling with Maine’s future. Long term, the gambler never wins.

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.