Sell those lottery tickets

September 28, 1993

"I waited a whole week," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, "for somebody to rush in with a new source of revenue, and there was no one who rushed to me and said, 'I can figure out a way to get you the 10 or 15 million.' " That's why he voted to approve the purchase of 300 vending machines that dispense $1 and $2 scratch-off lottery tickets.

It is a lame excuse, but the same one Mr. Schaefer used previously to explain other efforts to implement new games of chance in Maryland: The state needs the money.

This doesn't wash. Mr. Schaefer knows perfectly well there are ++ lots of ways to raise money for state government. One obvious method: squeeze out more efficiencies from the bureaucracy. "Re-invent government" the way Vice President Al Gore wants to do in Washington. That would wipe out the need to raise extra cash and hold down future government costs, too.

Another obvious method: wipe off the dust from the discredited Linowes commission report and embrace some of its tax-raising methods.

A third alternative: adopt the same approach being considered by the Clinton administration in paying for its health-care plan -- higher taxes on tobacco.

All of these are better ways to raise government revenues than expanding legalized gambling in Maryland. As it is, the vote by Governor Schaefer and Treasurer Lucille Maurer means lottery vending machines will start appearing in supermarkets, convenience stores, state office buildings, train stations, airports and subway stations. It will be impossible to stop teenagers from playing.

Even these machines won't churn out enough revenue to satisfy Mr. Schaefer. He said he needs to come up with another $10 million or $15 million. The instant lottery vending devices will only boost annual lottery sales by $6 million -- and that's gross sales, not net profits. These machines also will cut into the number of instant lottery tickets sold over the counter. By the time the $2.7 million purchase price is factored in, along with servicing and maintenance expenses, the governor may discover these vending machines barely break even.

Maryland officials have been sold a bill of goods on gambling. It is not a panacea. It cannot solve the state's chronic shortage of funds. It cannot provide the governor with the money he desperately wants to embark on ambitious undertakings before he leaves office in 16 months. Once citizens tire of this gambling craze, state revenues will plunge, prompting a new financial crisis.

That is too big a gamble to take. Playing the lottery games should not become Maryland's official state sport.

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