LINCOLN (AP) — Nearly 20 years ago, Nebraska's voter-approved statewide lottery began on a sour note: The first ticket, bought by then-Gov. Ben Nelson during a grand ceremony, was a loser.
But others have cashed in since, with more than $1.1 billion in prize payments paid out of about $2 billion spent on tickets.
The debate continues about who wins and who loses in the state-sanctioned gambling.
“It's a hustle by the state to get the money from people who they know are looking for that fast buck, the people who can least afford it: those who are poor and those who may have a gambling addiction,” said State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. “I think it's immoral, and it ought to be done away with.”
But Nebraska Lottery Director Jim Haynes said voters approved a state lottery to fund “good causes across the state.”
“We're proud to continue to accomplish that mission in partnership with our designated beneficiary funds,” Haynes said.
Officials said the lottery's proceeds have funded more than $478 million in projects since Nebraska retailers began selling scratch-off tickets on Sept. 11, 1993.
Fifty-eight percent of the state's lottery income goes for prizes. Eighteen percent goes for running and promoting the games, and the remaining 24 percent goes for the “good causes” Haynes mentioned.
A 2004 statewide ballot measure established how that 24 percent would be spent: Education gets 44.5 percent of it, as does the Nebraska Environmental Trust. The Nebraska State Fair gets 10 percent; and the remaining 1 percent must be spent on the state's Compulsive Gamblers Assistance Fund.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said more than 42,000 people in Nebraska — an estimated 3 percent of all adults — have gambling problems each year.
The Rev. Lauren Ekdahl, former pastor of Trinity United Methodist in Lincoln, criticized the lottery as “a mechanism of wealth redistribution that mirrors a Ponzi scheme sponsored by the state on its own citizens.”
“It is not only bad economics,” Ekdahl said, “it is a moral outrage and does not produce worthy character, products or service. ... It only profits those who run the scheme and the few winners, who in many instances have had their lives ruined by this sudden wealth.”
Nebraska has offered the multistate Powerball game since 1994. In 2006, eight co-workers at a Lincoln meatpacking plant won a then-record $365 million Powerball jackpot. The state began offering another multistate game, Mega Millions, in 2010.
Despite the criticism, the lottery's future seems like a good bet.
“Unfortunately, we are stuck with it,” said Pat Loontjer of the anti-gambling group Gambling With the Good Life. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to roll back gambling once it comes in.”
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