The state lottery's 2005 entrance into multi-state Mega Millions lotto would become fully legal, and fair to gamblers and schools, under a bill approved Thursday by the Assembly.
At the same time, the Assembly said it is hiring a think tank, Los Angeles-based Milken Institute, to assess Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's push to privatize the state-run lottery. The move came after the governor briefed Democratic legislative leaders on the plan, aimed at yielding immediate cash to ease the state budget crunch.
"It's critical to get an independent assessment of any possible sale or lease of the lottery," Assembly Speaker FabianNunez, D-Los Angeles, said.
Meanwhile, state lottery officials are racing the clock, with the bill lawmakers advanced Thursday, to carry out a court order on Mega Millions by July 13.
At the conclusion of a lawsuit that unsuccessfully argued voters should have decided whether to join Mega Millions, a Sacramento judge ordered the voter-approved lottery last year to extend its 180-day prize-claim deadline.
The judge set a one-year deadline so California gamblers would not be constitutionally restrained from collecting prizes after 180 days when players in other states have up 12 months.
At the same time, the judge said the current system could lead to shorting California's schools of cash. The lottery must give education at least 34 percent of its revenue, plus unclaimed prizes.
The Assembly's 71-0 vote Thursday sent AB1251 by Assemblyman Van Tran, a Costa Mesa Republican who sits on the lower house committee that oversees the lottery, to the Senate, with seven weeks left for it to be signed by Schwarzenegger.
But a question arose about whether the legislation would satisfy the judge. The bill, if signed, won't take effect until Jan. 1, more than five months after the judge's deadline.
Lottery spokesman Rob McAndrews said "we can't speculate" whether the bill would satisfy the court.
The bill already requires a two-thirds vote of the two legislative houses because it amends the constitution. An urgency clause, with the same vote requirement, could have been added to make it take effect immediately upon signature by the governor.
"We were unsure how this legislation would be received in the Legislature and didn't want to add an extra hurdle to the bill's progress," McAndrews said.
He said the lottery is also seeking "administrative solutions" to satisfy the order but refused to discuss details.
"When we reply to the court, I'll be happy to discuss it at that point," he said.
Gambling opponents said secrecy leaves it uncertain whether officials have found some way, including the legislation, to settle the problem.
Though the California Public Records Act shields the lottery from being forced to disclose lawsuit-related information, gambling opponents said they were disappointed with secrecy from an operation that was ordered by the lottery-authorizing initiative to put its essential image of integrity above all else.
The policy-setting Lottery Commission, meeting in Pasadena on Thursday, went into closed session to discuss litigation but took no action — which must be disclosed under the public records law.