El Floppo

December 29, 1992

What is the Spanish name for a government lottery tha generates only 44 percent of projected revenue?

In Maryland, the operative term is "el Floppo."

The State Lottery Agency laid a goose-egg with its heavily advertised "el Gordo" $10 million special drawing. Fewer than 2.2 million of the 5 million tickets printed for sale were purchased at $5 a piece. That means the agency spent millions in advertising for nothing: the state's take from the "el Gordo" game will be close to zero.

That's a far cry from the $8 million to $11 million officials had been predicting. In fact, Gov. William Donald Schaefer hoped to balance this year's budget with the help of this "el Gordo" money. What will he do now to close the budget gap?

Once again, the Lottery Agency has badly miscalculated. As the legislature's fiscal analysts noted recently, the agency "has overestimated sales and revenues substantially in the last two fiscal years." This points to even bigger problems when the governor's keno game begins Jan. 4.

Mr. Schaefer is counting on the new game to bring in $50 million by June 30. But legislative analysts believe that is wildly optimistic. They say the keno haul will be $35 million but other lottery games will be adversely affected, losing $16 million in revenue. The net for the state treasury: $19 million, leaving a budget gap of $31 million.

How will the governor erase this new deficit?

Sadly, Mr. Schaefer has linked the success of keno to the health and welfare of Maryland's elderly. He says that 1,900 nursing home patients won't lose their medical benefits just yet -- as long as keno proceeds on schedule and hits its revenue goals. Otherwise, these nursing home patients could be out on the street.

But why link keno to helping the elderly? Why frighten these frail seniors and their families? Why not admit the state still has a budget deficit and that other, more legitimate -- and reliable -- ways must be found to pay for key state services?

Keno and "el Gordo" illustrate the folly of a government becoming overly dependent on gambling revenues and accepting rose-colored revenue projections from compliant bureaucrats. Maryland's state government should use only dependable sources of revenue to pay for its social programs.

The state's gambling dollars are not elastic. There is a limit to how much money Marylanders will waste chasing the elusive pot of gold at the end of the lottery rainbow. The failure of "el Gordo" could well be repeated when keno begins. Public disenchantment with the proliferation of state-sanctioned gambling is growing. It is an increasingly poor bet.

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