Lottery’s golden goose killed in Boise

By David Keyes
Reader Contributor

The odds were pretty low Idaho would even have a state lottery when in 1983 a legislative committee harpooned the proposal.

After all, the Idaho Supreme Court eliminated all forms of gambling in the Gem State in 1953 and the state seemed to get along just fine. 

The idea of a state lottery reappeared in 1986 when an initiative was passed by the citizens. However, this initiative came up “snake eyes” when the Idaho Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. The lottery plan had one last roll of the dice and in 1988 voters approved an amendment to the Idaho Constitution and the Idaho Lottery was born in 1989.

David Keyes. Courtesy photo.

Idaho Lottery’s very existence has been a love-hate relationship between certain legislators, religious groups and an underfunded educational system that has benefited from yearly dividends.

Out of every dollar the lottery receives, nearly 25 cents goes to an annual dividend. From 1990 to 2019, the dividend has been $961 million, of which 62% goes to Idaho public schools while the remainder goes to the Permanent Building Fund and the Bond Levy Equalization Fund.

By any measure, the Idaho Lottery has run a solid operation without even a hint of scandal or misappropriation of funds. The lottery has the same number of employees and is in the same location with smaller office space 32 years after its inception. This clean track record can be attributed to the leadership of Director Jeff Anderson, some dedicated state employees and the guidance of a commission of citizens. I was honored to be on that commission for nine years and I was the vice chairman for two of those years.

So why is the lottery in the news?

There is a golden goose about to be killed in Boise.

In 1992, Idaho was one of the original states to create and participate in the new Powerball game. Powerball is now in 45 states and has helped fund the lottery dividend to the tune of $14 million a year since fiscal year 2011 through last year.

Powerball easily has the best name recognition of any game offered by the Idaho Lottery and is truly a tax on those who can’t do math because the odds of winning are 1 in 292 million. The odds of constructing a perfect NCAA tournament bracket are even steeper: 1 in 9.2 quintillion. Suffice to say, I am not going to win either. But at least with the purchase of a Powerball ticket, the little voice in the back of my mind reminds me that I am “donating” to Idaho schools.

Recently, the agency that oversees Powerball decided to expand the game’s reach by including Australia in 2021 and Britain in 2022. Forty-four of the 45 states are onboard for the expansion, which will ultimately lead to more players and higher jackpots. Idaho state law limits those who can play lottery games to U.S. citizens and Canadians.

Last week the Legislature’s House State Affairs Committee voted against expanding, which means Idaho will get kicked to the Powerball curb in August.

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, stated she was worried that when Australia joins Powerball, the country’s officials might use the revenue for causes she opposes. Her logic: “In Australia anti-gun causes, which they see as good and we see as not good,” could be funded. Other Solons stated how the odds of winning would be diminished with more players, which also isn’t true.

The Idaho Lottery was a longshot when it was established and the odds of resurrecting Powerball and the millions it provides to Idaho education are low. Those are the kinds of odds the lottery is used to and every once in a while, it is someone’s lucky day.

In a state that is 50th for funding education and whose leaders don’t have a plan to replace the millions of Powerball dollars, it may be wise to also consider what will happen to all of the businesses located near the state lines when customers drive past their Idaho locations to Powerball outlets in Washington, Montana and Wyoming.

David Keyes is a former newspaper publisher and Idaho Lottery commissioner. He lives in Sandpoint.

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