State lottery hoping to test odds overseas

Assembly OK sought for international game

January 28, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

As tax receipts slow and lawmakers prowl for funds to pay for vital programs, Maryland Lottery officials are looking at new games and an intriguing international partnership to keep an important cash supply flowing.

Starting next month, the lottery is reviving a game last seen in 1998, Bonus Match 5. But to generate even more sales and interest, officials have asked the General Assembly for permission to join with other states -- or even foreign nations -- to produce the mammoth jackpots that entice bored lottery players to part with their dollars.

"The main goal we have is if something else arrives that is in our interest, we want to jump on it," said Maryland Lottery Director Buddy Roogow.

Maryland's efforts underscore the growing importance of dollars spent by players hoping to scratch or pick their way to instant-millionaire status.

In the fiscal 2003 budget he proposed this month, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is counting on lottery players to spend almost $1.3 billion on games, yielding $409 million for the state's general fund after prizes, operations and other expenses. After sales and income taxes, the games provide the state's third-largest source of general fund revenue.

Lottery officials say they are constantly monitoring their mix of offerings, putting tired ones to rest and bringing in fresh choices.

But as the supply of home-grown ideas wanes, Maryland and other states are looking across continents, raising the prospect that lottery players here could compete for megaprizes with gamblers in Australia or Japan.

2003 launch eyed

Details of the international game are sketchy, with a launch said to be a year away. "The International Lottery Alliance plans to introduce a new multijurisdictonal game similar to Maryland's Big Game in the spring of 2003," says a state document accompanying the legislation that would allow Maryland to enter the partnership.

While some legislative leaders embrace the concept, others are concerned about where Marylanders' money might travel or whether the state could properly monitor the new venture.

"I'm not sure there's any oversight," said Republican state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader from the Eastern Shore. "Organized crime has typically been involved in gambling. I'm not sure we have the oversight to ensure a fair return to Maryland, or an ethical operation."

Even so, Maryland appears poised to join a growing number of states considering lottery expansion through outside agreements. The movement is fueled by an economic downturn that is leaving many governments with billion-dollar budget deficits.

Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky abandoned their Lotto games in September in favor of a new initiative, Lotto South. Roogow said he has no interest in joining the effort because its marketing potential is limited.

In May, New York will join the Big Game, the multistate lottery in place in Maryland and six other states.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft signed a law last month that allows his state to enter either Powerball or the Big Game, its first foray into an interstate game.

The New York and Ohio developments are significant because larger states have traditionally shied away from multistate games, fearful of cannibalizing their own products and losing money to smaller jurisdictions.

"There's all kinds of expanded gaming going on around us," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat. "It's all being done to grow public revenues. Maryland needs additional public revenue if we're going to meet our needs in transportation, in education and in health care."

Critics decry trend

But gambling critics are bothered by the trend. They say lotteries victimize the poor, who can readily part with their earnings at neighborhood stores. Huge jackpots with abysmal odds only exacerbate the problem, they say.

"To me, that's what this whole thing is about: They are preying on their hope," said Kim Roman of Glen Burnie, co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland "If you look at where the lottery outlets are, how many are in Baltimore, vs. Montgomery County?"

Gerald P. Dickinson, vice president for policy of the South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank, recently completed a review of lottery data in 36 states. U.S. lotteries spend a combined $1 million a day on advertising that peddles empty dreams to the poor, Dickinson said.

"It is clearly sending a promise that if you play the lottery, you have a chance to win, when you have a better chance of being struck by lightning," he said. A dollar spent on the lottery, Dickinson said, "is a dollar that's not going to food, shelter or medical care for children. It's just unhealthy."

It is unclear how an international lottery game would be marketed, how large the prizes would grow and how they would be paid. But interest is spreading. Legislatures in Iowa and West Virginia have passed bills allowing such games to be considered, said Charles Strutt, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association.

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