Tuesday, October 20, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Some go crazy over the lottery

The Arkansas lottery will give us plenty of colorful characters to write about, and the games aren’t even a month old. But they’re popular — are they ever.

The lottery is taking in more than $10 million a week — or about $30 million since it started three weeks ago — and paid out about $20 million in prizes.

The winners and would-be winners are as diverse as the people who inhabit Arkansas. You know the types we’re talking about: The woman from Camden who thought she could cut and paste a winning lottery ticket and tried to claim her $3,000 prize this week but didn’t get it. Ruth Dennis can now play the lottery from inside a jail cell. When she gets out of jail, she could apply for a job at the lottery commission to bring more diversity to the operation. We understand they’re still looking for a diversity specialist.

Then there’s Joseph Pierce of Van Buren, the working stiff who had been down on his luck until last week, when he won the state’s first $100,000 prize. The taxman took a 25 percent cut even before the check was made out. Pierce then headed straight to jail on a morals charge.

Still, $75,000 isn’t too bad when you have a growing family. “I do have a wife, and I just had a baby five days ago, so this is perfect timing,” Pierce said.

It was downhill after that: Facing a judge on the morals charge, Pierce couldn’t even get a public defender because the judge told him he can now afford his own attorney. Half of his money will likely go to an attorney and paying off old fines. Before you know it, the money will be gone. There are similar stories around the country and the world: Winners go broke after a few years and wish they’d never heard of the lottery. There will be counselors available, though, to help problem gamblers.

But the Arkansas lottery is doing better than expected — several million dollars above projections. Chairman Ray Thornton and lottery czar Ernie Passailaigue were probably lowballing the numbers before they sold the first ticket to make themselves look good when the games did take off, but in any event, it looks like the lottery will become a growth industry.

Call it a fad, but lottery fever has caught on in Arkansas. For a poor state, the lottery is irresistible: A chance at instant riches, especially when the multi-state Powerball kicks in — although the odds of winning are better at the racetracks. Bettors at the two tracks in Arkansas get 95 percent of the money back in prizes. Thornton and Co. pay out just two-thirds of lottery sales in prizes, and the rest goes to scholarships and expenses.

New games are on the way. You have a second shot at winning when you go online. Powerball will be huge. After that — who knows? Amend the Constitution to allow for casino gambling and help cover future revenue shortfalls? As state revenues keep falling, more types of gambling are inevitable. You can bet on it.