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Against the Odds

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

"The phone, the e-mail just started rocking," he recalls. "Folks from all over were saying they were excited about this. They wanted to play Powerball. They were tired of driving to Kansas, Nebraska, whatever."

The major opposition to the plan, he says, is coming from killjoys of the "extreme right" who are opposed to gambling on principle. "They want to tell everybody how to live their lives," he says. "Not only that, they don't want anybody to have any fun. But we already have plenty of gambling in this state, and there's 22 other states already involved [in multi-state games]. They're not going down the path of wrack and ruin. This is just another form of lottery."

But relentless lottery expansion has become a concern across the country. Critics have long maintained that state-sponsored lotteries, which have the worst odds of any form of legalized gambling, rely heavily on a customer base that can least afford to lose, including disproportionate numbers of elderly, poor and minority players. Last year's report by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, an ambitious effort to assess the spread of gambling nationwide, reported that lottery players who earn less than $10,000 a year not only spend a greater percentage of their income on tickets than other income groups, but they flat-out spend more -- an average of around $600 a year. Blacks spend five times as much on lotteries as whites, the NGISC reports, and the top 5 percent of lottery players account for 51 percent of total lottery sales.

The lottery-playing seniors that have made the Widefield 7-Eleven one of the state's busiest -- big spenders like Leo -- would seem to suggest that Colorado is no exception to the national trends. But it's not that simple. For one thing, the lottery's list of top retailers is a shifty beast; with the exception of the stores on the Utah and Wyoming borders that are perennial leaders, the reported sales figures may be skewed by the size of the Lotto jackpots, the popularity of certain scratch games and other vagaries. Clerks at a 7-Eleven in Arvada that made the most recent list believe that their prominence hinges on a single heavy-spending Cash 5 player who's been hitting the store regularly in recent months.

Also, a population of retirees or minorities doesn't automatically translate into the kind of low-income players the NGISC report is talking about. Other studies suggest that, contrary to stereotypes, senior citizens may actually binge less on lotteries and bingo than other age groups. And Colorado Lottery officials point to their own demographic surveys, which indicate that the state's lottery players closely mirror Colorado's population profile in age, income levels and ethnicity.

Lottery spokeswoman Murray says the "myth" that low-income players are the backbone of the lottery stems from early research done back East, in states where blue-collar workers played the numbers before state lotteries made a comeback in the 1970s. "All the initial lotteries were on the East Coast, and it's a different cultural makeup," she says. "There was an illegal numbers game, and the lottery became the legal version. The population and the culture here are different; we don't have the centers of steelworkers or mill workers who play those games."

Yet the Colorado Lottery's demographic profiles don't address how much certain income groups spend on the lottery. "If we were ever to do a study to find out how much the poor player played, it could be turned against us, to suggest we're trying to target the poor player," Murray says. "Those who think they're going to protect the poor from the evils of gambling also suggest that we're targeting minorities. We don't target minorities or the poor."

Under pressure from the administration of Governor Bill Owens -- who, like predecessors Roy Romer and Dick Lamm, is no fan of expanded gambling -- the Colorado Lottery no longer runs advertisements showing people wallowing in luxury, what spokeswoman Murray describes as "the greed-o stuff." Instead, the ads now tout the benefits to the state and the "fun" of playing the games. But detractors such as Jerry Kopel are skeptical of the lottery's claims that the games don't pander to a gambler's instincts; they believe that Powerball would be one more potent weapon aimed at people who are already blowing their paychecks on long, long, long shots.

"I don't know why we would be different in Colorado from other states," says Kopel. "I've seen studies that indicate that 10 percent of the players are responsible for two-thirds of the revenues at a national level."

State senator Lamborn, another Referendum E opponent, views the measure as an effort to woo folks dazzled by high jackpots away from casinos. "You have a state enterprise trying to siphon money away from private enterprise," he says. "Worse than that, there is a social cost to this. We're staking the success of the program on victimizing a small number of people.

"If you had a pollution source that was fairly benign but had the potential to hurt a small number of people, the regulatory agencies would really crack down on that. Maybe 95 percent of the people can play and have fun, but if 5 percent are going to be harmed, why go ahead and do it?"

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