The Minnesota State Lottery is two months shy of its 25th birthday, but the message its leaders want to convey wouldn’t wait that long. A bill that would end the lottery’s foray into online, ATM and gas pump game sales is galloping through the Legislature with strong bipartisan support.
A similar bill was stopped last session by Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto, which occurred too late for an override attempt. The 2015 bill’s sponsors won’t make that mistake.
Lottery officials — rightly, we think — see that bill as a threat to the lottery’s ability to thrive and grow. That’s why reporters were invited Friday to a slightly premature lottery birthday party at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The museum’s president, Eric Jolly, was among the grateful beneficiaries who attested to the good that has been accomplished via state law’s dedication of a portion of lottery proceeds to natural-resource purposes.
Dayton came to praise the lottery, too, and to convey a sharper message: If the bill to block online, ATM and gas pump lottery sales arrives on his desk in its current form, he will veto it again. That move could lead to the drama of a rare veto-override attempt.
But the DFL governor said he isn’t spoiling for an override fight. He also said he will meet early this week with legislative sponsors of the measure and seek a compromise, which could include an additional dedication of lottery proceeds to a fixed public purpose. Dayton has a possible beneficiary in mind — facilities on the state’s higher-education campuses.
The talks the governor proposes are welcome. We hope they go beyond the narrow question that sponsors of the online games ban say is motivating them — whether the lottery had sufficient legal authority to start selling games online and at self-service devices, or should have obtained legislative permission first. After 25 years, the time is ripe to revive a larger policy question: How much should Minnesota rely on gambling to pay for public goods and services?
We would prefer that the answer be “not at all.” Gaming raises revenue disproportionately from low-income people, in a pernicious way. It preys on people who are financially vulnerable, mathematically ignorant and prone to compulsive behavior. It falls way short of the goals of fairness and transparency that Minnesota sets for its other revenue-raising tools. That’s why this newspaper opposed a state constitutional amendment authorizing the lottery in 1988.
Voters disagreed then, and we suspect a majority still do. One reason for the lottery’s popularity is the law’s dedication of 40 percent of its proceeds to the Environmental Trust Fund. That well-managed fund has paid for aquatic-species research, habitat restoration, natural-science education and other worthy projects.
By comparison, allowing the lottery to dwindle by denying it online sales, without a plan for replacing the revenues it has provided, seems the opposite of good management. And doing so over what Dayton called “a power play” between the executive and legislative branches is bound to strike the lottery’s fans as petty.
To be sure, legal authority is more than a nicety. State agencies are obliged to take it seriously. But if the lottery is indeed exceeding its legal bounds, the Legislature is tardy in blowing its whistle. The lottery’s initial moves in this direction were included in reports to the Legislature as early as 2010, says executive director Ed Van Petten, who is confident the agency is on firm legal ground.
Nevertheless, both Van Petten and Dayton have apologized for failing to engage the Legislature before rolling out the pay-at-the-pump games in October 2013 and online game sales in February 2014.
Online games are still in their initial stage and accounted for less than 1 percent of the lottery’s revenues last year. Ending them now would not deal a serious immediate blow. But Van Petten predicts that when they are marketed in earnest, they will climb quickly as a share of total lottery proceeds. On the other hand, without an online option, lottery sales will fall over time, he forecasts. Already, the share of 25-to-40-year-olds buying lottery tickets is down two-thirds from its level a decade ago. That forecast and how to respond to it should be the chief topic of the talks Dayton plans to convene.
Dayton spoke well Friday when he said, “Resource protection should not be a victim of a legislative/executive branch power fight.” The Science Museum, the Minnesota Zoo, research at the University of Minnesota and more have come to depend on funding from a less-than-desirable source. If Minnesota is ready to move away from that source, its leaders should devise a plan to keep funds flowing to today’s lottery beneficiaries.