TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Lottery, long a cash cow for public education, can no longer pay its share of the bill because of falling ticket sales.
To make up for lost cash, the state has to dig around for spare change. In Tallahassee today, lawmakers will tap $48-million from an account filled with unclaimed checks, forgotten utility deposits and other unclaimed property to stave off cuts to education.
"It's an emergency," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a member of the Legislative Budget Commission that must approve the change. "But I can appreciate people not buying lottery tickets when they're having trouble putting gas in their car."
Gambling critics in the Legislature say the new predicament is proof Florida should not rely so heavily on such revenue.
"Gambling is risky. It's stagnant. It's unpredictable, and it's not the best way to balance the budget, " said Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, the likely next speaker of the House.
State economists say lottery sales are down due to the tough economy, particularly because of pain at the gas pump.
"Everything in one shape or fashion comes back to the economy," says Florida's chief economist, Amy Baker. "High gas prices did have an effect."
The prime evidence: Ticket sales in July were $321-million — $21-million less than in July 2007.
The introduction of the multi-state Powerball game in January is expected to rekindle sales, but total sales for all games in 2008-09 is expected to fall short of the estimate lawmakers used to build the budget in May.
The lottery leans heavily on gas stations to promote sales of its scratch-off tickets, Lotto and other games.
At a Chevron outlet on 34th Street S in St. Petersburg, one of the bestselling lottery outlets in the state, winning tickets are hung on a wall to entice bettors. But lately the number of people buying tickets has dipped.
"They just say gas prices are too high, and they ain't got no money to buy," said Lonnie Jones Jr., 51, a retired construction worker who spends time at the store. "They don't buy no tickets. They just buy the gas."
In July, state revenue experts lowered their estimates of yearly lottery sales by $343-million. That in turn reduced the estimate of how much money the lottery would contribute to the state educational enhancement fund by $48.2-million this year.
Lottery money helps to run schools, community colleges and universities and pays for Bright Futures scholarships and other financial aid. It accounts for about 7.5 percent of the state's $21.1-billion education budget.
To cover the lottery shortfall, the Legislative Budget Commission is expected today to reach into another pot of education money with a $135-million surplus. The money comes from unclaimed property, such as unclaimed utility deposits, uncashed checks and jewelry, coins and stamps left in safe deposit boxes.
In a statewide education budget of $21-billion, a $48-million shortfall may seem puny. But teacher-union lobbyist Marshall Ogletree of the Florida Education Association said the decline in lottery revenues is a troubling sign of a much bigger problem.
"It's a very scary trend," Ogletree said. "We're concerned about the bigger picture, that revenues keep falling. Right now, we're holding it together on a shoestring."
The revenue picture for the lottery could be worse, however. In January, Florida will become the 30th state to join the megajackpot Powerball game.
"It's slowly picking up, and we think Powerball will make a big impact," lottery spokeswoman Jacqueline Barreiros said.
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.