It's not immoral anymore, and it beats paying taxes

NEW YORK -- It seems to take longer and longer to buy a paper or pack of gum at the candy stores on most every block of Big Town, U.S.A. -- because the lottery lines get longer every day.

At first I thought it was my imagination, but now I read in the paper that lottery action is indeed up 60 percent in the 1990s. The paper was the New York Times, which happened to run a story that began: "Gov. George Pataki today urged state lottery officials to shift the focus of their advertising campaign, by playing down the lure of great wealth and emphasizing instead the lottery's stated goal of raising money for education."


What the governor did not say was that he had the power to pull or change the television and billboard-ad campaign, which uses the slogans, "Hey, You Never Know" and "A Dollar and a Dream." You can win a million dollars for one in the lottery -- good luck.

But the governor does not really want to moderate the ads. He is pro-business, and gambling is very big business, getting bigger every day. The New York Lottery, largest in the country, sold $3.6 billion worth of tickets last year and spends more money on advertising, $31 million, than Philip Morris does for Merit cigarettes.


Under the Pataki story, the Times printed its daily box of winning lottery numbers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. This being the wrong time of year, the nation's greatest newspaper had no professional football point spreads in the sports section.

Eliminating the "racket"

When I was growing up around here, this sort of stuff was illegal, because they told us it was immoral. Well, you have to hand it to government; they eliminated the old numbers "racket" and a lot of illegal sports betting, too -- by taking it over themselves.

Now it's not called immoral any more. It's called fun! But I'll bet it is just as destructive to family life and the community as it was when the business was being run by "racketeers" and other bad guys. Now, it seems to be our civic duty to play and for papa to leave baby with no new shoes. Estimates of the number of compulsive gamblers in legal lotteries and casinos range from 4 percent to 8 percent, and they are believed to provide at least a quarter of the money taken in by lotteries and casinos.

Political influence? Sen. Robert Dole, the man who would be president, collected almost a half million dollars at one lunch with gambling impresarios in one city, Las Vegas. He is -- surprise! surprise! -- against federal taxes on the private gambling industry.

This is pretty sick stuff. Not since we gave brandy to the Indians . . . or, since we began giving Native Americans the right to have casinos on reservations. The hypocrisy of it all by defenders of "family values" is softened only by the openness of state greed these days -- greed that is usually patched over with promises to use the gotten gains for the little kiddies in public schools.

"We are going to need new money if we want to have good schools," said Ann Richards, then the governor of Texas, in a television speech the day before the 1991 vote on whether or not to establish a state lottery. "Either we have a huge tax bill or we approve a lottery."

Still no free lunch


But there is still no such thing as a free lunch. Set aside the social effects of more and more gambling; in the current issue of Money magazine, Peter J. Keating calculates after six months of investigation that "lottery states collect more in taxes and spend less on schools than states that go without the games."

That happened as the take of state lotteries went from $2.9 billion 15 years ago to to $32.1 billion last year. The money is not going to schools, as most states advertise; it is going to advertising, bureaucracy and Medicare.

It is also nowhere near as much money as advertised. On average, only one-third of the take is left after payoffs and expenses, principally for the advertising that is upsetting Governor Pataki at the moment. Five'll get ya ten he shuts up when he realizes that high-minded advertising won't pull in enough suckers -- and that if he meant what he is saying, he would have to call for real taxes divided among all the people all the time if gambling revenues dropped.

It's a bad business, gambling; always has been. But it's very American these days, another way to get more money from the poor and the weak, and the middle class, to keep down the taxes of the investing classes. America is the best place in the world to get rich quick, which is the promise held out to the suckers. But it's an even better place to be rich.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/24/96