Junking The lottery … That’s The Ticket

The Santa Fe New Mexican

Is the state lottery’s number up? Reps. Matthew McQueen and Jason Harper hope so.

Republican Harper and Democrat McQueen introduced a bill Thursday to abolish the 28-year-old New Mexico Lottery.

They’re in for a fight. That’s fine with both lawmakers. All 45 state lotteries, New Mexico’s included, are in the tawdry business of trying to entice people to risk their money on the slim hope that it will lead to something spectacular.

Like all the rest, New Mexico’s lottery is supposed to have a higher purpose than gamblers scratching bright, shining tickets.

It is required by law to turn over 30 percent of its gross revenues to a scholarship program for college students. The other 70 percent reverts to the New Mexico Lottery for staff salaries, administrative expenses, prizes and advertising.

The guarantee of 30 percent for scholarships typically equates to between $40 million and $47 million a year. Under House Bill 369 by Harper and McQueen, that money for scholarships would be replaced by appropriations from the state general fund.

McQueen, an attorney from Galisteo, and Harper, a research engineer from Rio Rancho, say state-sponsored gambling does more harm than good.

“It boils down to the fact that we’re funding education through gambling. And the people who are gambling on the lottery are the ones who can least afford it,” McQueen said in an interview.

Harper pointed to research by the consumer financial company Bankrate. It found that on average people whose annual income is less than $30,000 spend 13 percent on lottery tickets. For those making more than $50,000 a year, lottery expenditures average 1 percent.

Opposition is sure to come from the people who oversee the numbers game.

“I believe the lottery has been good for the state of New Mexico and the students,” said Reta Jones, chairwoman of the lottery’s board of directors.

It’s certainly been good for David Barden, CEO of the New Mexico Lottery. He received a $46,000 raise that increased his salary to $220,000 in 2019.

The largesse the board showed toward Barden gave him a salary that at the time was higher than the lottery directors in California, Texas, New York and Florida. Those states operate multibillion-dollar lotteries. New Mexico’s generated $143 million the year Barden hit his personal jackpot with a 26 percent raise.

Barden and his board have long said they could provide more money for New Mexico’s scholarship program if only the Legislature would unshackle them.

The lottery staff and many lawmakers have tried but failed in five different legislative sessions to do away with the 30 percent guarantee for scholarships. They said the change would enable the lottery to offer bigger prizes, thereby enticing more gamblers.

One fine day, after the number of lottery players escalated, they said more revenue would be available for scholarships.

Their claim sounded like pie in the sky from that great old ballad by Joe Hill. That’s because it was.

Before 2008, the New Mexico Lottery was not required to provide a guaranteed percentage of revenue for scholarships. In those freewheeling years, the lottery contributed about 23 percent of its gross revenue for scholarships.

The math was clear. When left to its own devices, the lottery turned over tens of millions less for education than it does today. Legislators installed the 30 percent guarantee to give collegians a better break.

Even with the Lottery Scholarship in place, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last year pressed for a similar but more robust short-term program to assist college students.

She pushed legislators to approve a bill expanding a different program, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act. Lawmakers allocated $75 million to fund it. Lujan Grisham’s publicity team crowed about establishing “the most wide-reaching, tuition-free scholarship program in the United States.”

Instead of the governor and the Legislature continuing with dueling and duplicative scholarship programs, Lujan Grisham should get behind the bill by McQueen and Harper. They share common ground.

The governor and the lawmakers believe college should be accessible to New Mexicans. They also believe the money should come from the general fund.

At issue is whether Lujan Grisham and the Legislature are courageous enough to cut the state budget to make funding for college scholarships available every year.

With that commitment, the lottery can go to a legislative graveyard, perhaps the same one where the Republicans’ three-strike crime bills are buried.

New Mexico could become the first state in modern times to abolish its lottery. Jones and others affiliated with the numbers game are sure to argue this would send border-town residents to Colorado and Texas to buy up lottery tickets, costing New Mexico revenue.

It wouldn’t be any great loss. The state should not be in the business of luring gamblers on the pipe dream that they can get rich through a lottery jackpot.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at [email protected] or 505.986.3080.

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