Pennsylvania’s lottery luck could change

Columnist : Albert Paschall

I bet I have some of the best bookies in the state.  Each Saturday at the supermarket I hand over $5 to one of them and get my Super 6 lottery number.  But some days it’s tough.  While I let the machine pick my numbers I almost invariably end up in line behind people who have written out the numbers they charted from their horoscopes or culled from license plates in the parking lot.  Meanwhile the poor lady behind the counter has to answer the phone and respond to shouted questions from people passing by about how fresh the bananas are, all the time trying to poke sets of numbers into an antiquated computer system.  While I’ve been tempted from time to time to play the numbers with my kids’ birthdays it would drive my bookies nuts and just embarrass me.  After all I’ve never won more than 20 bucks from the state lottery.
Of course the state’s bookies like me because I lose.  The ticket to real money when you run big time gambling is more losers than winners.  Gambling doesn’t come much bigger than Pennsylvania’s lottery.  In fiscal ‘99 the lottery took in just over $1.7 billion and it’s been a jackpot for Pennsylvania’s senior citizens.  State law mandates that the lottery pay out 40 cents on the dollar for programs.  The lottery funds PACE one of the most politically protected state entitlements that pays for a portion of prescriptions for some of the state’s indigent senior citizens.
But the state lottery has a lot of competition.  29 years ago when the General Assembly legalized gambling some naïve legislators thought that when the government became the biggest gambling enterprise in the state that every bookie between Philadelphia and Erie would fold.  It didn’t work out that way.  Bookies by nature have to be clever.  Early on they realized that the state had conveniently modernized their system.  No more posted numbers in the back rooms of barbershops or taprooms.  Using private sector know-how bookies began to pay twice what the state did on the daily number with far better odds and the state serviced their enterprising ways by broadcasting the daily number on TV and radio every day.
Through some more dumb luck Pennsylvania never got in on the multi-state lottery.  22 states own a gambling pool that runs games like Rolldown and Power Ball.  These high rollers open up with $10 million prize pots.  80,000,000 to 1 odds against winning doesn’t slow down eager Pennsylvanians when jackpots climb to $100 million.  They form pools at work when somebody offers to take a sick day to cruise into West Virginia or Delaware to try to get everybody in on the big action.
In all of this for the first time in nearly three decades Pennsylvania’s big bookie may let us down.  The state’s lottery managers predict that revenue will be off at least $1 million this year and unless something is done to jump start sales, funding for the senior programs may be cut.
Lottery officials think that the Buckeye State may be Pennsylvania’s answer.  The hope is that combining big lottery games like Super 6 and Cash 5 with Ohio’s Buckeye 5 or Kicker lotto might boost the prize pool enough to get some people to up their ante or others to get into the game for the first time.  Ohio’s gambling managers want to move the mark because their sales have shrunk by about 10% since their all time high of $2.3 billion in 1996.  Ohio’s lottery losses risk dipping into taxpayer pockets fast.  Our western neighbors use their gaming profits for public education.  Funding that by its political nature is virtually fixed.
But there’s not a lot of science that says where the break-even point will come.  While more people might take a chance when prizes regularly top $25 million, it also means that bigger prizes for more winners will push Pennsylvania back into the loser’s circle.
The Pennsylvania Lottery’s luck could change for the better if it just picks up some of Ohio’s systems.  More ticket outlets with just 180 days to claim prizes instead of a year and award bigger cash prizes on the small ticket games.  Someday the state might even bring in the touchscreen technology that Ohio is using to let players pick the numbers by themselves.  Then my bookies can go back to running their supermarket and I can play my license numbers or kids’ birthdays privately without being embarrassed and ticket sales will jump.  Then the Pennsylvania Lottery Commission can cast its own fortune and won’t have to gamble that the state of Ohio will pay off.