Not the ticket

February 15, 2007

February is the height of the silly season in Annapolis, the time of year when bills of questionable merit are heard, chuckled over and then discarded. It's early enough in the 90-day session to make room for a little irreverence, not to mention irrelevance. Proposals for new state birds, fossils or official sports fit this category. One trusts that a plan to sell the state lottery does, too.

At least making the Raven Maryland's second state bird is a benign act.

Selling the lottery is more along the lines of foolhardy.

The lottery has become an important source of revenue for the state, and whether that's a positive thing or not, at least the state can keep it under strict control. There is, after all, a name for privatized gambling in this country - the numbers racket.

Cash-strapped states may see the allure of the quick buck. Under plans being discussed in Texas, Indiana and Illinois, a state might receive a large upfront payment - $1 billion in the case of Indiana (the lottery closest to Maryland's in size) and a percentage of profits. Private companies are willing to bet they can squeeze out enough money to more than justify the investment.

No doubt that can be done. State lottery revenue isn't growing the way it used to, and a smart entrepreneur might be willing to explore ways to expand gambling that government never dared. More lottery outlets in low-income neighborhoods? Ads aimed at the untapped youth market? Perhaps instant-win ticket dispensers resembling slot machines? The possibilities are endless.

Government could ban any of those practices, of course - and wind up with a far less lucrative contract. It's the corollary to the Groucho Marx observation that he'd never want to join any club that would have him as a member: Any lottery deal that looks good to Wall Street is going to be bad news for Main Street.

So here's an alternative plan: Why can't the politicians in Annapolis devise the most efficient and effective state government possible and then set a sensible and fair tax system to finance it? Admittedly, it's not as easy as buying a lottery ticket - or selling the lottery franchise - but then doing the right thing seldom is.

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