Against the Odds

Referendum E is a sucker bet, but the state's hooked on lottery games.

Hunched over the counter of the only 7-Eleven in Widefield, an elderly black man named Leo mulls over what could be his most consequential purchase of the day. You never know; this could be the time, the magic moment, that life-altering, red-letter, once-in-a-lifetime lucky day.

You just don't know. This could be the day that pigs fly, hell freezes over, and odds of several hundred thousand or even five million to one mean diddly-squat. It could be.

Then again, maybe not.

Glenn Hilario
State senator Ken Chlouber is the power behind the Powerball push.
State senator Ken Chlouber is the power behind the Powerball push.

Leo stabs a finger at the glass display of lottery tickets. "Give me three Octoberfests," he says. "Two Sizzling Sevens. Three Quick Picks. And three of those Double Downs."

He forks over thirteen dollars, collects his Lotto and scratch tickets, and heads out the door. Similar transactions are conducted every day at hundreds of stores across the state, but at the Widefield 7-Eleven, a few miles southeast of Colorado Springs, they occur with dizzying frequency. According to the Colorado Lottery's latest official sales figures, the store is the second-busiest ticket-seller in the state; only a retailer on the Wyoming border, the undisputed champ at luring dreamers from the Cowboy State to join in Colorado's gambling fever, sells more.

Store manager Greg Harrington isn't sure why his 7-Eleven consistently makes the list of the state's top lottery retailers -- particularly with a competing seller, a Safeway, right across the street -- but he has a few ideas. "There's a substantial senior population around here," he says. "They like the convenience. Some come in four or five times a day."

Convenience has been a key to the Colorado Lottery's success ever since the first scratch game made its debut in 1983. Widely promoted and available in every corner of Colorado for the past seventeen years, lottery tickets have generated more than $3 billion in gross revenues and pumped more than a billion dollars into state parks, open space, conservation and capital construction projects. But the true costs of the enterprise may be higher than anyone knows.

According to a study conducted by the Colorado Department of Revenue in 1997, up to 4 percent of the state's adult population -- between 37,000 to 85,000 people -- can be classified as "problem" or "pathological" gamblers. Although the group as a whole prefers casinos, many of its members also spend heavily on lottery games. And their numbers may soon grow substantially -- if, as expected, voters hungry for bigger jackpots approve Referendum E next week.

Heavily favored in polls, Referendum E would allow the Colorado Lottery to participate in multi-state lottery games such as Powerball or the Big Game. Compared to the current state Lotto, the multi-state games offer humongous payoffs (the Big Game hit $357 million last spring) and even more ridiculous odds (around 80 million to one, compared to Lotto's 5.2 million to one chance of hitting the big score). Lotto spending has trailed off in recent years, and backers say a multi-state game will enhance current lottery revenues and provide a new source of funding for school construction as well.

In an election season mined with explosive issues -- ballot issues dealing with growth control, abortion, tax cuts and background checks at gun shows -- Referendum E has stirred scarcely a ripple of comment. Both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News have come out against the proposal, and both dailies have dutifully run the usual op-ed pieces arguing pros and cons, but the debate has been oddly muted, in sharp contrast to the outcry that has greeted previous proposals to expand gambling in the state. "Other than the 10 percent of the population who are morally opposed to gambling, everybody else seems to have other things on their mind," says Colorado Lottery spokeswoman Lisa Murray.

But opponents of the measure, including Republican state senator Doug Lamborn and Democratic ex-legislator Jerry Kopel, say that Referendum E is a bad bet on several counts, an overkill solution to a nonexistent problem. They note that overall lottery proceeds aren't dropping catastrophically -- in fact, in the latest fiscal year the lottery provided $89.5 million to the designated state funds, up from $84.7 million in 1999 -- and in the long run, a Powerball-type game is unlikely to offer a tremendous boost in revenue. But such a game would increase the state's reliance on gambling to finance conservation and recreation, add to the already impressive pool of compulsive gamblers and related social ills in the state, and prompt litigation over the proposal's constitutional problems.

Kopel, a critic of the Colorado Lottery since its inception, says the agency has an almost boundless appetite for schemes to part citizens and their cash. "The legislature never intended that," he notes. "You won't find any legislative declaration that they have to raise more money each year than the previous year. But the lottery's mission statement says exactly that -- that they're going to try to get as much money as they can."

Actually, the lottery's mission is "to maximize revenues for proceeds recipients in a way that demonstrates the integrity that is appropriate for a state agency," according to the official statement. But Kopel has a poor opinion of the level of integrity involved: "Every time their revenue falls, they add a new game. We started with scratch, and they said that wasn't enough. Then Lotto. Now they want Powerball. What happens when a multi-state game's revenue falls? I don't know where it ends."

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