Cash-hungry California may soon team up with either Powerball or Mega Millions, the popular multistate lotteries that entice players with head-reeling jackpots.
State lottery commissioners are poised today to decide whether to join one of the long-odds, big-payday games for the first time in the 20-year history of California's lottery.
Barring legislative or court challenges, Californians could be competing with gamblers from across the country for supersized jackpots by June.
At the same time, however, there are societal and financial risks.
Studies indicate that the vast majority of habitual players and losers are those who have low incomes and can afford to gamble the least.
Critics charge that lawmakers use lottery money earmarked for education as an excuse to shortchange schools of other revenues. And players could sink their dollars into the new game, shrinking the amount now spent on Super Lotto Plus.
"That big L doesn't stand for 'lotto.' It stands for 'loser,' " said Harvey Chinn of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion.
Lottery officials were mum on the pending decision, declining to provide details until the commission meets.
Kevin Gordon, a prominent education consultant, said the lottery must act boldly because of stagnant receipts.
"Their performance has been anemic compared to other states," Gordon said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's government reform team is behind the drive to open up California's lottery market, pointing out that a multistate game could generate an additional $128 million a year for the state. Of that, nearly $44 million would to schools.
Three commissioners appointed by the governor will make the decision. There are two vacancies on the five-member board.
Powerball or Mega Millions could combat what is known as "player fatigue" by exciting Californians with new games promising payouts that regularly dwarf the state's Super Lotto Plus, according to the governor's Performance Review Board.
A Mega Millions jackpot broke all records when it topped out at $363 million. Powerball's largest was $315 million.
In California, three lucky winners shared the state's biggest prize of $193 million.
Californians bought more than 1 billion lottery tickets in the 2004 fiscal year, making the state an attractive partner, say officials with Powerball and Mega Millions.
"California will help us achieve those supersize jackpots that everybody is excited about," said Buddy Roogow, president of the Mega Millions consortium of 11 states, including New York and Texas.
Charles Strutt, executive director of Powerball, said higher payouts also will attract more affluent players.
"It finally gets their attention," Strutt said. "It's a chance for a state lottery to broaden its player base." Powerball is played in 27 states, including Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
While the prizes can be staggering, so too are the odds. They can be as much as one in 135 million for Mega Millions and one in 120 million for Powerball.
Chances are better in California, one in 41 million for some games.
"This is not a game you bet the farm on," Roogow said.
The addition of a multistate game would be a significant expansion for the California Lottery, which was approved by voters 20 years ago.
Last year, the Legislature considered a proposal to put more money into jackpots to woo players. Assemblyman George Plescia, a San Diego Republican who carried the failed legislation, said the new proposal before the Lottery Commission looks appealing.
"When you increase prize payouts, there's more participation that brings in more revenue," Plescia said. "That brings in more dollars to education without rasing taxes."
Lottery officials and the governor's advisers make the same argument.
"The state's fiscal crisis and the public's reluctance to increase taxes require that the state consider all available sources of additional funding for our public schools," Schwarzenegger's advisers wrote in their recommendation. "The lottery is one of these sources."
The recommendations went further, suggesting that the Lottery Commission expand its game selection to generate more interest. But today's agenda gives no indication that members will pursue that suggestion.
The Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries have submitted detailed proposals, but representatives of both said they could not comment until after the commission makes a decision.
If the decision is made, however, there will be a dash to get the games and tickets out to some 18,000 lottery retailers in California.
"They indicated they were ready to move, and they would prefer to start as soon as possible," said Roogow of Mega Millions.
Powerball's Strutt said California sent a directive clearly indicating "the faster the better."
Critics don't plan to roll over. They contend that legislation is necessary to open California to Powerball or Mega Millions, based on the 1984 ballot proposition that launched the state's lottery.
"In 1984, nobody considered a multistate lottery. It was for California only," said Fred Jones, an attorney and lobbyist for anti-gambling forces.
"Even if it's not required by law," Jones continued, "it's a decision that should be made by elected officials so there's some accountability."