A Beacon Hill push under way today to sell Massachusetts Lottery tickets online — which backers say could boost cash-strapped state coffers by as much as $1 billion a year — is getting strong support from an unlikely corner — liberal icon U.S. Rep. Barney Frank.
"I don't understand why liberals think they're supposed to tell people not to gamble," Frank told the Herald yesterday. "They favor gay marriage, legalization of marijuana and sex-oriented literature, but not gambling. It's totally inconsistent. It's wrong for state and federal government to make betting a crime. . . . I am in favor of people being able to gamble online."
Lawmakers today are slated to mull a bill requiring the state Lottery to launch a pilot program letting players use their credit cards to buy tickets on the Internet — a plan proponents say could eventually spike sales by 10 percent to 25 percent, potentially raising another $1 billion a year for hard-pressed cities and towns.
"The idea behind it is to increase Lottery sales and generate more revenues for the commonwealth," said John Regan, chief of staff for state Sen. Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury), who introduced the measure while serving in the Navy Reserves in Iraq. "Other states are doing it, and the senator thought it would be best to do a pilot program to see how much could be raised."
For starters, Regan cited gambling industry estimates that up to 60,000 Bay State residents take part in unregulated Internet gambling, spending as much as $250,000 daily with offshore operators. "The Lottery can capture these revenues by offering (what) the online gaming residents want along with the transparent regulation that offshore regulators lack," he said.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said he's cautiously optimistic about the online plan but wants to move slowly "because the Lottery is such a source of revenue for cities and towns, we want to make sure that any changes are done carefully."
But the Beacon Hill proposal faces stiff opposition, beginning with the Lottery's boss, State Treasurer Steve Grossman.
"Allowing credit card payments without careful analysis of the consequences could very easily exacerbate problem gambling across the state," Grossman told the Herald.
New York, Minnesota, Virginia, Maryland and North Dakota currently sell lottery tickets online, some with lukewarm results.
Carolyn Hapeman, a spokeswoman for the New York State Lottery, said Lotto and MegaMillions — the only two tickets available — sell an additional 95,000 season tickets online annually, ranging in price from $100 to $500 each.
"We introduced online purchases as a convenience to our customers because we want to offer products to people where they are," she said. "Lots of our customers are snowbirds who winter in Florida or North Carolina, and it makes it easy for them to buy."
Thomas Larkin, president of the United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts, said expanding lottery sales online is "bad public policy."
"Money lost to gambling comes right out of the general economy," Larkin said. "Increased debt also has social consequences, including depression and alcoholism."
Tony Amico, owner of Ted's Stateline Mobil in Methuen, the Bay State's largest sales agent who last year earned nearly $411,000 in Lottery commissions, said the plan is bad for businesses such as his.
"We have five Lottery stations, and 80 percent of our customers play the Lottery," Amico said. "Selling tickets online would substantially hurt us."