If lottery operation ain't broke, why fix it?

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We should have known the Pennsylvania Lottery was on shaky ground when it laid off Gus the Groundhog last year.

(Some say the spokesrodent has been forced to crash on his cousin Phil's couch in Punxsutawney. Another rumor has Gus hustling passers-by with three-card monte on the Roberto Clemente Bridge; though, in fairness, that could have been some other animatronic annoyance.)

What's alarming now is that Gov. Tom Corbett is so eager to privatize something, anything, after being unable to sell off the liquor stores that he wants to hire a British company to manage the lottery.

The union representing lottery workers finds this especially odd given that the lottery reported more than $3.5 billion in sales last year -- its most ever -- and is on course to top that this year.

"None of us want profits skimmed off senior programs to pad the pockets of foreign CEOs," David R. Fillman, executive director of the lottery workers' union, told the state Senate Finance Committee on Monday.

Indeed, some 237 years ago, it was self-evident to the men in the powdered wigs in Philadelphia that we had the unalienable right to run our own keno games without any help from the Brits (I'm paraphrasing). So what's changed?

Pennsylvania is graying rapidly, that's what. The governor's office says we'll have about 900,000 more residents who are 60 or older by 2030, and the lottery will need to spit out a lot more money for seniors' programs if we're to keep up.

OK, but why can't we just add some new games ourselves? Why split proceeds with an outside company just to add outlets or new games?

The commonwealth needs "a predictable revenue stream," said Jay Pagni, the governor's spokesman. Camelot -- a British company that's owned by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan -- has put up $200 million in collateral to guarantee a minimum funding level in any year that Pennsylvania Lottery proceeds might be down, Mr. Pagni said. The counterproposal by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13 doesn't do that, he said.

Camelot also provides "downside protection" in the event the lottery defrauds the public, he said. With a private contractor at the helm, it would be on the hook for any improprieties, too.

So that's the platform on which this privatization plan rests: guaranteed income in down years, and shared blame in the event we ever see the return of crooked numbers like the Triple Six Fix of 1980. (Here's to you, Nick Perry.)

Camelot has run the United Kingdom's National Lottery for 18 years, and it figures it can increase the take in Pennsylvania by getting more people to play a little. The union counters that it already has the equipment, staff and expertise to manage any expansion of gaming in-house. For his part, Gov. Corbett says he doesn't need the Legislature to add computer monitor-based games such as keno (kind of like bingo on steroids) to the Pennsylvania Lottery stew.

So one thing's clear. However this shakes out, we Pennsylvanians will be asked -- check that, we will be expected -- to play the lottery in one form or another a lot more often than we have been. To butcher that old Knute Rockne quote, folks, "Go out there and lose more for the geezers."

I trust my elders take no offense. I'm fixing to hit 60 in just a few years and thus have heightened interest in whether there will be enough money to fund free bus rides, low-cost prescription programs, property tax rebates and recreation centers for seniors. I don't know if privatization means a win-win, but I do know that without more lose-lose from the populace the current funding structure will be creakier than the conga line at a 50th high school reunion.

Still, as a Pennsylvanian, I'm not seeing why proceeds for our seniors ought to be split with a Canadian teachers pension fund or British gaming magnates. If the union's counterproposal isn't good enough, why not see if it can be improved so all the money we blow on the lottery stays in Pennsylvania?

Keep on scratchin' this thing. Keno is hardly rocket science. We ought to be able come up with a homegrown jackpot.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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