$290 million mega-jackpot sparks lottery fever outbreak

Payoff: Lines form around the state as players gobble up tickets for tonight's Mega Millions drawing.

July 02, 2004|By Scott Waldman and Seth Rosen | Scott Waldman and Seth Rosen,SUN STAFF

Marylanders crowded convenience stores, gas stations and other lottery vendors across the state yesterday in hopes of winning tonight's $290 million jackpot.

"Oh boy, it would be nice to win," said Doris Scheerer as she bought tickets in Middle River. "But I'm probably throwing my money away. At 75, I shouldn't be doing this, should I?"

But whoever is holding the lucky numbers isn't the only winner of the multistate, Mega Millions mega-jackpot.

Maryland's budget also benefits from the huge jackpot, according to state lottery officials, who say the chance of large winnings spurs huge increases in ticket sales.

And if no one wins tonight, Maryland receives yet another windfall.

While an average Mega Millions jackpot of $20 million or $30 million prompts ticket sales of $1.25 million or so in Maryland, the huge jackpots prompt purchases from people who don't normally play the game - increasing sales to $10 million or more, said Buddy Roogow, director of the Maryland State Lottery.

That means more than $4 million in revenue per drawing for Maryland, Roogow said, compared with a little more than $400,000 for an average jackpot.

About half of every dollar spent in Maryland on a Mega Millions ticket goes to the winners. The state receives 41 cents, and the rest goes to retailers and lottery operations, he said.

The money couldn't come at a better time for the state's cash-strapped budget. In the 2003 fiscal year, the lottery returned about $445 million to the state, said Roogow. Most of that money went to the state's general fund - paying for education, public safety, health and the environment - ranking the lottery as the third-largest revenue source behind the income and sales taxes.

The Mega Millions game features $1 tickets sold in Maryland and 10 other states - Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Texas and Washington.

Drawings are held about 11 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays. Players must match five numbers from 1 to 52, as well as a gold mega ball number from the same range.

A top-tier winner of tonight's drawing will receive - before taxes - $11 million a year for 25 years, or $163 million if they choose to cash out immediately.

Though the odds of matching all six numbers are 1 in 135 million, people all over Maryland and other Mega Million states rushed to buy tickets - and many already know how they want to spend their money. Family and charities are on the minds of many. So is the prospect of never having to work again.

"It's my retirement," said Kurt Lurz, a Baltimore police officer waiting in line at a store along Key Highway in Baltimore.

Bill Morrison, a retired construction worker from Baltimore, said that if he won the money, he would "give it all away" to his son. Though others in line at Corky's Liquor Store on York Road in Govans were dreaming of sports cars, Morrison said he was "too old" for such things.

Lottery players tried anything they could think of to get a little luck.

Libby Leisher of Essex had her 8-month-old granddaughter, Shyan Chenoweth, kiss her numbers before handing them to the sales clerk at Geresbeck's, a grocery store in Middle River. "If I win, you'll have a big trust fund," Leisher promised Shyan.

Roogow said he was glad to see the fever pitch in stores this week, but cautioned Marylanders not to get carried away. "Don't bet the farm," he said. "This is not an investment opportunity."

The Mega Millions game has produced two Maryland winners in the past year. Bernadette Gietka of Baltimore won $183 million in June 2003. The Bonilla family of Silver Spring won $109 million in March.

Many players hoped to find a little extra luck by buying their tickets at the same place where Gietka found her fortune, Geresbeck's on Eastern Boulevard.

A line of a dozen people nearly blocked the store's entrance yesterday. It was so long that manager Ken Krawczyk had to call in reinforcements to work the register.

"A lot of people come here specifically because it sold a winning ticket last time," said Susan Scheerer, who tightly clasped a fistful of dollar bills as she waited in line with her mother-in-law.

There has been a buzz in the store all week. Last year, Geresbeck's received $25,000 for selling the winning ticket.

At the Royal Farms Store on Key Highway, assistant manager Katia Wallace said her store has sold about 2,500 Mega Millions tickets a day since Tuesday.

But all the talk of being able to own fleets of cars and travel around the world has not affected Wallace, who refused to buy a ticket.

"Look at the odds," she said.

Sun staff photographer Christopher T. Assaf contributed to this article.

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