Chon Gutierrez, acting director of the California State Lottery, boldly predicted there would be days like this. But he had no idea that day would come this soon.
Today, California's participation in the new Mega Millions multistate lottery game is expected to produce a $170 million jackpot, the second-largest lottery jackpot in state history. If no one wins in the 12-state drawing tonight, Tuesday's Mega Millions jackpot likely will top $200 million - exceeding the California record of $193 million from the SuperLotto game in February 2002.
"This (Mega Millions) game is not a month old. We figured we still would be educating people about the game," Gutierrez said Thursday. "Instead, we find ourselves with this life-altering jackpot. We didn't think we would see a jackpot this big this quickly."
State lottery officials began selling tickets for Mega Millions on June 22, hyping the Tuesday and Friday drawings for ushering in a new era of bigger and bigger payouts. The largest prize in Mega Millions history was $363 million five years ago.
In their first eight Mega Millions drawings, Californians bought $37 million in tickets. During the same period, $97 million was spent on drawings for California's Wednesday and Saturday SuperLotto Plus.
The big Mega Millions jackpot comes as lottery officials announced Thursday record sales of more than $3.3 billion in tickets for lottery games for the fiscal year ending June 30. The sales total was $425 million over the previous year.
Gutierrez credited the increase to a surge in sales for the lottery's more than 60 Scratchers games after a decision by the Lottery Commission to fatten the prize pool for the games.
Lottery fever - and a vast array of games - lured David Bolt, 63, an Army veteran and retired postal worker, to the 7-Eleven store on Sacramento's Arden Way on Thursday. Bolt bought five Mega Millions tickets and then pointed to a glass case full of Scratchers tickets like a kid selecting treats at a candy store.
"I'll take two of these, four of these, two of these, two of these and three of these," he said to the store clerk, buying Big Spin tickets and Scratcher games, including $19 Million Spectacular, Diamond Jubilee, California Cash and 30 Grand.
Mega Millions is the newest feature in his lottery portfolio.
"I think it's a good idea. Why not play it every time?" Bolt said. "I might as well have the chance to win."
At Lichine's Liquor and Deli in Sacramento's South Land Park, one of the leading lottery sales outlets in California, every customer sitting at the deli tables Thursday afternoon was filling out a Mega Millions form or had just bought tickets for the game.
"I think playing the Lotto was a long shot, but this one (Mega Millions) is astronomical," said Rosa Shumacher, a retired administrative assistant from Elk Grove who buys a handful of $1 lottery tickets a week. "But I'll play it. Four dollars a week is not too much to pay for an extraordinary long shot."
The reality is that the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are about one in 176 million. SuperLotto is a safer bet - with one winner for every 41.4 million tickets sold.
Still, that didn't discourage Edward Lockhart, 69, a retired photographer, from buying five Mega Million quick picks and musing: "If I hit it, I'll buy about 320 new digital cameras.
"Then, I'll go on a photo safari in Africa," he said. "And then Brazil. I love Brazil. I guess I'll just love life until I kick the bucket."
Such daydreaming continues to worry anti-gambling activists who are suing to stop the Mega Millions game in California.
"The bigger the jackpot, the lesser your odds. It's the equivalent of being struck by lightning six times," said Fred Jones, an attorney for the Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. "A lot of people lining up for tickets are the people who can least afford to lose."
The Sacramento-based organization sued the California Lottery Commission and acting director Gutierrez on July 6, charging that the lottery illegally entered the multistate game without legislative approval.
The Mega Millions game is made up of lottery players in California, New York, Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Virginia, New Jersey, Ohio and Washington.
Over the course of a year, the Mega Millions game is expected to produce 18 jackpots bigger than $100 million and four exceeding $200 million, Gutierrez said.
Since California joined Mega Millions, nine Californians have won or shared prizes ranging from $211,307 to $407,668 for selecting five of five numbers - but not the extra Mega Number to trigger the jackpot.
Thirty-four percent of lottery revenues goes to public education. The 2004-05 ticket sales will produce $1.16 billion for elementary, junior high and high schools, community colleges, the California State University and University of California systems and other educational programs. The largest share - estimated at $793 million - will go to K-12 schools, accounting for 1.4 percent of the budget.
"The lottery is not a solution to education funding," said California schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell, "but every nickel and dime helps."