Editorial: The lottery's real addicts

Florida lawmakers have never kept the promise to use lottery proceeds to enhance public education.
Published Feb. 25, 2019

Is the lottery addictive? Only if you consider poker, slots, vodka and nicotine addictive.

And yet, state lawmakers debated that self-evident question last week while considering a bill — which they should pass — to add a warning on lottery tickets about the dangers of gambling. But you know who else is addicted? Lawmakers themselves. Really, it's the Legislature itself that should carry some kind of warning label. When Florida voters approved the lottery, they were promised the money would go to enhance public schools and improve education for the next generation. Instead, the Legislature grabbed those dollars like a playground bully taking a little kid's lunch money.

The state should not be in the gambling business in the first place. But voters got sold on the lottery three decades ago under the altruistic guise that the revenues would be used to make Florida schools better. The lottery would "enhance" education. The lottery was an instant success, at least judging by sales figures. Also instant was the legislative heist of cutting state funding for education and supplanting the cuts with lottery funds, which continues to this day. In 1986, before the lottery was approved, state funding made up 64 percent of the education budget. In 2017, it totalled 56 percent. Talk about a losing bet.

But lottery sales reach ever higher heights. Last year, ticket sales jumped nearly 9 percent over the previous year, totalling almost $7 billion. The main people filling those coffers are low-income Floridians, and that is no accident. The lottery markets games in low-income neighborhoods and tailors its products to maximize the draw of scratch-off games, which account for nearly two-thirds of sales. Those games are played more by poor people, who are lured in, experts say, by the instant gratification a winning ticket offers. In 2016, the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in South Florida found that sales of scratch-offs rose three times faster in poor areas than in others, coinciding with the lottery directing more advertising to poor and minority neighborhoods.

So it's all a bit rich, given how the lottery preys on poor people to persuade them to buy more tickets, that lawmakers now want to warn those very same customers about the risks of gambling addiction. The proposed wording in HB 629, shouted in all caps, would tell ticket buyers, "THE CHANCES OF WINNING A BIG PRIZE ARE VERY LOW." That may go down as the truest statement ever to be uttered about the Florida Lottery. It's just too bad voters weren't given that warning about the constitutional amendment that enabled this racket in the first place.