Lottery sales are ending the year at a record-breaking pace in Texas, and state officials are striving to keep the revenue rising with a new game.
Still, the growth isn’t enough to keep some lawmakers from pressing forward with a study on whether the state should cash out of the lottery, even though the games pump more than $1 billion a year into schools and veterans programs.
Lottery officials hope to strengthen their hand by enticing Texans to join the club — the Monopoly Millionaires’ Club, that is.
Texas is participating in the new multistate lottery, which uses Rich Uncle Pennybags to guide players in their three chances to win per ticket.
“The Texas lottery continues to set new standards of excellence in its mission to generate revenue for the state of Texas, and we look forward to continued success,” said J. Winston Krause, chairman of the Texas Lottery Commission.
In the Monopoly game, players must match five numbers between one and 52 and one randomly assigned sixth number to claim a jackpot of $15 million to $25 million. Tickets cost $5, and drawings are held every Friday night.
The first to hit the jackpot was New Jersey’s Wayne O’Keefe, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran. He won $21 million and chose the cash option, taking home nearly $13 million.
“We are pleased that a New Jersey resident is benefiting from the life-changing prize,” said Carole Hedinger, executive director of the New Jersey lottery. “The Monopoly game properties are all streets in Atlantic City, so it seems fitting that New Jersey has the first top prize in the nation.”
Lottery officials kicked off the Monopoly game last month.
It offers three ways to win.
The first way is to match the numbers drawn and claim a top prize of up to $25 million.
The second way comes when someone else wins the jackpot. At that point, multiple players whose Millionaires’ Club Number matches the randomly chosen number will each win $1 million.
Joseph Enger of Amarillo was one of those randomly chosen players — the only Texas winner — picking up $1 million when O’Keefe won.
The third way is to take the Web code printed on the tickets and enter it online, which makes players eligible for a five-day, four-night trip to Las Vegas.
Anyone who wins the trip can be part of the studio audience for a Monopoly Millionaires’ Club TV show that offers more than $2.5 million in prizes every episode. Anyone in the audience could be chosen as a contestant on the show, which will be hosted by actor Billy Gardell from CBS’ Mike & Molly.
This is “the first multistate game to combine traditional lottery with the fun and entertainment of a national television game show,” according to a statement from the Texas lottery.
But lottery watchdogs say it’s too much.
“The game is too complicated and too expensive,” said Dawn Nettles of Garland, who runs the online Texas Lotto Report. “The draws [computer picks] cannot be viewed as they occur such as all other games. In fact, it takes a good 20 minutes to find out what numbers were picked by the computer.
“For a $5-per-ticket game, not to be able to see the numbers picked is really bad.”
When O’Keefe picked up his check, he and his wife of 37 years, Stacie, said they will donate an undisclosed portion to the New Jersey Firemen’s Home and the Karen Ann Quinlan Memorial Foundation.
In Texas, the lottery just wrapped up a “record-breaking fiscal year” that generated $4.38 billion in sales — $1.2 billion of which went to public education and veterans programs.
“This is the 11th consecutive year that the Texas lottery generated more than $1 billion in revenue for Texans,” said Gary Grief, the lottery’s executive director.
The lottery, which began in Texas in 1992, has generated $22 billion for the state and paid out $44 billion in prizes to players, state records show.
Before 1997, lottery proceeds went to the state’s general fund. Since then, they have gone to the Foundation School Fund, which is administered by the Texas Education Agency, according to the Lottery Commission.
Sixty-three percent of lottery proceeds go to prizes, 26.1 percent to the foundation school fund, 5 percent to retailer commissions, 4.4 percent to the lottery administration and 1.4 percent to other state programs, such as unclaimed prizes, according to the commission.
The lottery has contributed more than $17 billion to the school fund, including more than $1 billion a year for the past decade, commission records say.
But state lawmakers are studying whether it’s time to scratch out the lottery.
Critics say the game financially hurts some of the most vulnerable Texans and doesn’t do enough to help the state. Supporters disagree, and they wonder where the state would find $1 billion a year to replace the lost revenue.
“I think they should abolish the lottery now,” Nettles said, adding that she has seen two $1 million scratch-off-ticket winners blow through their money.
“They are broke today,” she said. “This is really sad, and I actually witnessed them on their gambling sprees each day — buying scratch tickets. They were the talk of the area. Now they are nowhere to be found.
“The bottom line: Texas would most likely come out ahead if they did away with the lottery,” Nettles said. “That’s because the money currently spent gambling would then be spent in retail outlets, housing, cars, etc.
“This would provide additional income to the state which would replace the lottery money. Not to mention what it would do for our economy.”
During the last legislative session, the topic of ending the lottery gained attention when Texas House members unexpectedly voted to do so.
Within hours — as questions arose about how to replace the revenue — lawmakers shifted gears and continued the lottery.
“It is the free will of these people to play these games,” Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, the bill’s sponsor, told the House. “I am not here to argue with you whether we should have gaming or not. That is not the purpose of this bill. The purpose of the bill is how we regulate the lottery.”
While lawmakers agreed to continue the lottery, they also called for a study on the possibility of a phaseout and how it would affect the state’s finances.
This year, House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appointed a committee to study the impact of eliminating the lottery and review charitable bingo and the distribution of money generated by bingo.
“I am confident that our senators will lead this committee to a meaningful and productive study of the issues, and I look forward to their findings,” Dewhurst has said.
A report on their findings is due to the Legislature by Monday.