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Politics

As Powerball Ticket Sales Surge, Lawmakers Consider Maine Lottery's Future

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Powerball sales are soaring in advance of Wednesday's record-breaking $1.5 billion drawing.

In fact, tickets are moving so fast, state lottery officials are urging Mainers not to get too carried away as they attempt to to beat the 1-in-300-million odds of winning the top prize.

Lottery fever is also promoting discussions at the State House of a different nature, with Gov. Paul LePage saying he would sign a bill banning the lottery if lawmakers sent it to his desk.

Tickets are so hot that Powerball sales in Maine could exceed $1.5 million after the big drawing. And while most Mainers are dreaming about what they would do with their lottery proceeds, some state officials are pondering what Maine might do without them.

Discussions among lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee has led to a vote to investigate whether the Maine State Lottery targets the poor. LePage says he thinks the poor spend more than they can afford on lottery tickets and he says that if the Legislature sent him a bill to ban lottery ticket sales, he'd sign it.

"The governor is not proposing to introduce any kind of bill to abolish the lottery," says Adrienne Bennett, the governor's press secretary. "What he is simply saying is that we have become very accustomed to the $50 million that the lottery does bring in annually and if the Legislature were to bring him a bill, he would consider that."

During an interview yesterday with radio station WVOM, LePage said he thinks desperate people often see the lottery as a silver bullet. But the governor says what, if anything, needs to be done about that is up to the Legislature.

Maine receives about $50 million annually from lottery sales and another $50 million in tax revenues from gambling activities at the state's two casinos. Bennett says lawmakers would have to be willing let half of those revenues go if they want to take a stand on lottery sales.

"It would have to be for a complete abolishment of the lottery — either we're a gambling state or we're not and currently we are a gambling state," Bennett says. "Legislators — I think they have become accustomed to that revenue that is coming on an annual basis from the lottery."

"We've had no discussions but it's clear that if there were to be a bill to be put in, we'd have to take a look at it," says state Rep. John Martin, a Democrat from Eagle Lake. "Then the problem you would have is that you would have an appropriation that would be need to be made in order to cover the loss."

Martin sits on the Legislature's Appropriations Committee and says balancing a budget with a $50 million hole is never easy. Still, he says he has seen his share of Mainers lining up to buy lottery tickets and instant scratch tickets.

Lawmakers' interest in the issue was piqued last week, after they learned that some of the state's highest lottery ticket sales are racked up in Maine's poorest counties. Rep. Gay Grant, a Democrat from Gardiner who also serves on the Appropriations Committee, is eager to learn what comes from the probe of Maine lottery ticket sales by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

"Once the committee weighs in and we start looking at some of the issues that have been raised about who buys the tickets, who benefits, who has issues around it," Grant says. "I think we have to start looking at the issue of gambling as an addiction, and are we playing to that and are we addicted to the money ourselves?"

OPEGA officials are scheduled to update the Government Oversight Committee on their progress into the lottery probe later this month.