The states as mega bookies

The Mega Millions lottery predictably drew lots of attention — and nearly $1.5 billion in purchases from those trying to capture the record prize. But when the winning numbers were announced Friday, only three victors — one each in Maryland, Illinois and Kansas — qualified to share the $656 million jackpot.

And while some White House staffers tried to win that high-profile, 42-state lottery spectacular, the man in charge there did not.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday that he was among the millions who played the Mega Millions game. But Mr. Carney added that his boss did not — and that the president is still not a fan of government lotteries.

Then-Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama delivered this compelling criticism of that state’s lottery in 2000:

“One of the concerns that I have, obviously, is that a disproportionate number of people who consistently buy lottery tickets tend to be lower-income and working-class people who can least afford it. Even if they’re not compulsive gamblers, they are probably spending money that they don’t necessarily have.

“Now we might say that this is their entertainment dollar the same way that somebody else has entertainment dollar and spends it on a movie. But I think the fact that the state systematically targets what we know to be lower income persons as a way of raising revenue is troublesome.”

That targeting was particularly blatant in Illinois, where billboards in low-income Chicago neighborhoods once touted that state’s lottery with the message: “This could be your ticket out.”

OK, so the Obama campaign website has offered a lottery of its own — sort of — to generate small campaign donations: Contribute $3 to the re-election effort and you are “automatically entered” in a chance to win dinner with the president and first lady Michelle Obama. But you can also enter that contest without a making a donation.

And though we have often opposed President Obama’s policies and proposals, we share his disdain for the lottery.

There’s simply something unseemly about any government imposing what is, in effect, a tax on gullibility by luring millions of people — many of them poor Americans — to spend billions of dollars on absurdly long odds.

Beyond that fair-play concern lie the bottom-line realities that virtually every state in the nation, including ours, now relies on lottery money — a distinctly unreliable source of revenue.

After all, over time, some of the lottery’s suckers tend to catch on and find better ways to spend their money. Even some of those who still want to gamble realize that other wagering options offer far better odds.

That learning experience tends to produce diminishing returns for state governments, intensified marketing to sell those games of chance, or both.

And as Mr. Obama so aptly put his case against lotteries a dozen years ago: “I would argue that if you look at it as a whole, in most states across the board, this tends to be a form of regressive taxation, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the fairest way for us to raise revenue for us in the state.”

We don’t think so, either. We think the states’ shift to big-time bookie status is a mega mistake.