And you get a shot! And you get a shot! After COVID, what next for state lotteries? | Ray E. Landis

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There has been a lot of news about lotteries in recent weeks. Some of it has been about gigantic jackpots, but the bigger story has been the creation of state lotteries open to individuals who have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

Ohio recently awarded $1 million to a lucky vaccinated person (as well as a full college scholarship to a teenager who has been inoculated). A number of other states are in the midst of establishing similar lotteries, with Oregon announcing anyone in the state who received a COVID vaccination will be automatically enrolled in their lottery.

State lotteries are thought of as a late 20th century creation, but early America had plenty of lotteries – and plenty of scandals associated with them. The most notorious was the Louisiana State Lottery of the late 1800s, which used the postal service to distribute tickets nationwide and whose corruption resulted in the U.S. Congress banning the interstate transportation of lottery tickets in 1890.

It was not until 1964 that state lotteries returned. New Hampshire, facing a funding crisis for education because elected officials would not institute a sales or income tax, established a state lottery, which, according to the website Lottery.net, sold $5.7 million worth of tickets in its first year. Other states, observing the potential financial windfall, soon followed.

The Pennsylvania lottery was created by legislation signed into law in 1971 and the first ticket was sold in 1972. Today, 45 of the 50 states have lotteries with Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah the exceptions.

Pennsylvania’s lottery is unique, as the revenue is dedicated by law to services supporting older Pennsylvanians. This gives these services a guaranteed source of funding each year. But it also takes pressure away from lawmakers who do not have to make difficult budget decisions about the amount of money necessary for these programs.

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The popularity of state lotteries, and the subsequent expansion of other forms of gaming which have taken place in recent years, have stemmed from elected officials attempting to fund necessary programs without forcing their constituents to directly pay for them.

Whether it is senior services in Pennsylvania or education, environmental protection, or the general fund in other states, every dollar spent on a scratcher or Powerball ticket is, after prizes and operating expenses are taken out, a few cents less in taxes.

Complaints from gambling opponents, who express concerns which include corruption, fairness, morality, and addiction, have lately largely fallen on deaf ears, as the financial gains from lotteries and gaming to both the government and private entrepreneurs have expanded. The public appears to embrace the chance to beat the odds as they spend more money on lotteries and gaming each year.

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But the move to incentivize individuals to get a COVID vaccination through the possibility of winning a lottery is a step in another direction for lotteries in the United States.

Never mind the reality that as safe as the vaccine is, the odds of a bad reaction to it are better than winning a lottery. Or the fact that states are using federal resources designed for pandemic relief to provide the prize money for the lotteries.

The sobering story the vaccination lotteries reveal is the admission of government that many Americans will not take an action benefitting society as a whole without some kind of bribe…err “incentive” to do so.

The idea the vaccine will also protect them from the dangers of COVID-19 is not enough for many people, as so many doubts have been raised by conspiracy theorists that science and facts are no longer sufficient. Thus, state governments are resorting to “incentives” to encourage vaccinations.

The pace of vaccinations has been stronger in Pennsylvania than in many other states and we may not feel the pressure to resort these schemes to get people vaccinated. But the trend of individuals unwilling to contribute to improve conditions for everyone shows no signs of abating. An example is the resistance to modernizing the Commonwealth’s income tax system.

Perhaps we can take a lesson from the success of the vaccine lotteries. Maybe the incentive for a fair and progressive tax system in Pennsylvania is through the creation of a lottery for all Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Suppose a Constitutional amendment establishing a progressive tax system included a provision that everyone who files a tax return in the Commonwealth is entered in a high-stakes lottery? It might sound far-fetched, but if more people will get a COVID-19 vaccine if they have a miniscule chance of winning a $1 million, could a lottery be the tipping point in winning support for a tax system benefitting the majority of Pennsylvanians?

The answer today is no, as too many political forces would be aligned against such an idea. But given the trends toward self-interest and away from the collective good we now see, it is going to take these kinds of plans, schemes we might now consider as unacceptable as lotteries were in the 1940s and 50s, in order to provide needed services for Pennsylvanians in the future.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.