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Wash. Legislature Considers Plan To Boost Lottery Sales

Austin Jenkins

What would it take to get you to buy a lottery ticket? In Washington, lawmakers have a plan to shift lottery proceeds to higher education and revamp how the lottery advertises itself – all in the hope of boosting sales. But will it work? The proposal is on the agenda as the legislature meets this week for a special session.


The Washington State Lottery is perhaps best known for its quirky TV ads. Like this one where hang gliders take a penguin and a chicken flying. The tag line:

Washington Lottery Ad: "Every bird should get to fly. Washington's lottery. Whose world could you change?"

Memorable, yes. Whether the ad makes people go out and play the state lottery is another question. Over the past decade, lottery ticket sales in Washington have held pretty steady at something under $500 million a year. Compare that to the state of Georgia where gross sales in 2008 exceeded $3.5B. The Peach state has three million more people. But even so, Democratic State Senator Jim Kastama thinks the Washington lottery is underperforming. And here's his theory why:

Jim Kastama: "For people to buy the lottery, they've got to believe it goes for something other than just their ability to get rich. It's got to be towards an altruistic purpose and this is what's been shown in other states."

Kastama cites Georgia as a prime example. There people know that when they buy a lottery ticket the money goes to pre–school programs and college scholarships. In Washington, lottery proceeds fund about a hundred million dollars per year in school construction. But no one really knows that. That's because — believe it or not — it's taboo for the lottery to advertise that ticket sales help school kids. In fact, school districts famously got upset over a lottery billboard ad that showed an armored car painted like a school bus.

Jim Kastama: "They had to end up pulling that ad because the K–12 community said they didn't want it. Their fear is that if they are tightly connected with the lottery, people will say, I'm not going to vote for a levy, I'm not going to vote for a bond."

So Kastama, a Democrat, has a plan to make Washington's lottery more like Georgia's. He would hold school construction harmless. But he wants to redirect lottery proceeds to early learning and higher education. Then he'd market the heck out of that linkage. Senator Kastama has won over an important ally. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp hopes to include the lottery makeover in whatever final budget passes the Legislature during the current special session. Chopp was moved by a Georgia lottery ad that makes the connection between buying a ticket and helping a kid go to college.

Frank Chopp: "It inspires people to buy those tickets because it connects with you on an emotional level that that's the right thing to do as opposed to the usual lottery things, which is 'hey if you win you can get greedy and sit on a beach all day long.'"

But is that really why Georgia's lottery sells so many more tickets? A spokeswoman says she can't prove that connection. A survey by the University of Georgia found widespread support for the lottery because it benefits education. But stopped short of concluding more people play as a result. And it would be misleading to suggest the Georgia Lottery only advertises its good deeds. Check out its current "Maximum Green" ad campaign. It's all about getting rich quick. One TV spot shows a winning scratch ticket exploding into a destructive fountain of cash.

Georgia Lottery Ad: "Whoa little man. Maximum Green from the Georgia Lottery with 30 prizes from one to five million dollars."

The tag line: Take winning to the maximum. The question in Washington is will linking lottery tickets to higher ed maximize sales. An independent fiscal analysis forecasts if the Legislature approves the change, it would result in a $37–million–a–year bump for education. I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia.

© Copyright 2010, Northwest News Network

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