AUGUSTA, Maine — The legislature's Government Oversight Committee has voted unanimously to launch an investigation into the marketing practices of the Maine State Lottery.
The panel wants to find out whether, as one study suggests, the lottery is targeting its ticket sales to the poor.
Sen. David Burns, a republican from Whiting says he is very concerned about the disproportionate number of lottery tickets being sold in areas of the state that have some of the highest unemployment and poverty levels in the state. He cites a study out of Cornell that found the lottery sold $275 worth of tickets for every man, woman and child in Washington county. That's about a $100 a person more than in the relatively wealthy counties of southern Maine.
"There is exploitation going on here by, whether intentionally or inadvertently, by the operation, the lottery operation," Burns says.
The six month Cornell study-commissioned by the Maine Center for Public Interest reporting, has raised a number of red flags for committee members.
Burns says he has been frustrated in his effort to learn more about the marketing strategy of the lottery, which is handled by an independent company. He says the state is spending about $8 million a year to market the lottery but the documents that explain the strategy have been declared the property of the marketing company and are therefore confidential.
"I think we need to know what is in that, whether or not particular demographics of this state have been improperly targeted," says Burns.
That concern appears to extends across party lines.
"For me, we have to get to the answer of whether we are as the state of Maine, auspices of this program, targeting the poorest among us to finance some of our programs," says Sen. Chris Johnson (D-Somerville).
Maine nets over $50 million a year from the state's general fund from the sale of lottery tickets of all types. But Rep. Anne Marie Mastraccio — a democrat from Sanford, says some of that revenue may be coming from welfare benefits the state pays out.
"Someone who is a welfare recipient is using some of that money to buy a lottery ticket and maybe a disproportionate number of lottery tickets because they are actually being enticed into buying it," says Mastraccio.
Among the findings of the Cornell study is that when people lose jobs in Maine, lottery sales go up. For every one percent increase in joblessness in a given zip code, sales of scratch and draw tickets jump 10%.
The study also points out there are long odds of winning the lottery. Big jackpots, like the Powerball drawing this weekend that is expected to top $800 million for the top prize, also drive sales. According to the lottery, the odds of winning Powerball are 1 in 175 million.