Columns » Max Brantley

The numbers racket

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With plenty of money at his disposal — and if Arkansas backers don't come up with enough you can bet the lottery industry will — Lt. Gov. Bill Halter seems likely to succeed at putting a state lottery on the 2008 ballot.

Polls have shown consistently that Arkansas voters would approve a state lottery, so long as it is unencumbered by expansion of other forms of gambling, such as casinos.

Halter's proposal would merely legalize a state lottery and provide that proceeds — after payouts to winners and overhead — would go to college scholarships (probably in disproportionate number to whites and higher-income people).

Ah, but there's a rub. What form will that lottery take? Will it be a weekly drawing of Ping Pong balls? Will it include the scratch-off cards sold in most other states? Or will it be more sophisticated — and more addictive — than that?

The New York Times has been writing extensively about the lottery industry. Some of the reporting has been about the powerful influence of the major suppliers of lottery equipment and consulting services. With so much money in play, corruption is an inevitable byproduct.

Some reporting has dealt with the maturing of the lottery. States can rarely count on exponential growth in revenue. And people tend to underestimate the revenue. It typically provides only a tiny fraction of a state's educational needs, even as it convinces some voters that other taxes are unnecessary thanks to imagined gambling riches.

Recently, the Times focused on Rebecca Paul Hargrove, who's helped establish lotteries in several states, most recently Tennessee. Her story is a marketing story. She has worked to make the lottery as ubiquitous as candy bars at retail outlets.

Her example provides support for my fear that a state lottery will mean a great deal more gambling than many people believe. As Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has noted in approving the form of the lottery proposal for the ballot, ending the constitutional prohibition on lotteries opens the door to just about any form of state-sponsored gambling. Ask Halter about this and he'll say the types of games will be a matter for the legislature to decide. Yes, but it's a factor voters should consider when they decide whether to approve an enterprise subject to legislative finagling.

Opponents of lotteries say the products pushed by Hargrove have become increasingly addictive, even as they've won increasing acceptance.

In Tennessee, the Times reported, Hargrove rapidly introduced 29 instant-ticket games and two on-line games. Online games?

She helped devise something called Fantasy 5, an online in-state pari-mutuel game with better odds than multistate Powerball and large jackpots. She also added “Hot Trax Champions,” a game installed in bars that uses real video of NASCAR drivers (sounds a bit like Oaklawn's Instant Racing). While many lottery games have daily or twice-daily drawings, the Times said, Hot Trax has drawings every five minutes for almost 20 hours a day. You could hardly play keno any faster in Vegas. Which means you can lose just as fast in the comfort of your Arkansas home as you can lose in a Vegas casino.

In Hargrove's world, state lotteries must always invent new ways to lure gamblers to keep revenue growing. There is something ironic in a government mission to support education through millions in chump bets. In case you didn't know: overall, the house always wins.

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