The Maine Lottery is getting strong, bipartisan criticism for its "Funds For Fuel" promotion as lawmakers say the lottery should not be using Mainers' fear of high fuel prices this winter to sell more lottery tickets.
"I think it is misleading," Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, a member of the Legislature's Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee that has oversight of the lottery, said this week. "It almost sounds like some of the money will go to fuel assistance. It doesn't. It is just another way to entice people to buy a ticket."
On many Megabucks and Powerball game tickets is a printed promotion urging players to spend an extra dollar on Powerball for the "Power Play" option and automatically be considered in the "Funds For Fuel" promotion. If the "Power Play" number on the ticket matches the winning number, the person wins $500.
"This should stop now," said Senate Majority Leader Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro. "We should not be doing this."
She said a constituent who has been raising money to help poor Mainers pay their fuel bills this winter brought the issue to her attention. She said the woman had people telling her they thought buying the ticket would help pay for fuel assistance.
"And of course, it doesn't," Mitchell said. "We should not be using this sort of effort to promote sale of more lottery tickets. It's wrong and I have told Dan [Gwadosky] that I think it is wrong."
Gwadosky said the promotion is one of four or five a year totaling about $100,000 each. The money comes from unredeemed prizes in both the Megabucks and Powerball games. Unlike instant tickets where the state gets the unclaimed prizes, the online games require that prize money be used for additional prizes.
"We must return that money to the players as prizes and we use several promotions," he said. "Next June we are planning one that will provide prizes with a college scholarship theme."
Gwadosky said while the promotion is called "Funds for Fuel" there are no limitations on how winners use the cash. He said the promotion only runs Nov. 9-22.
"What is clear is that people aren't buying lottery tickets," Plowman said. "This is an enticement of some kind to get you to spend more and more of your disposable income on some kind of gimmick that is supposed to bring you funds for your heating."
The revenue forecasting panel was told last month by Gwadosky that state lottery revenues are failing to meet projections. He said both instant ticket and online game revenues are not meeting original estimates.
"As of October 25, instant tickets are down 8 percent," he said. "Online sales are down 9.7 percent. I am not as concerned about online sales because they fluctuate rather dramatically based on the size of the jackpot." [Editor: "online" sales are not Internet-based sales. "Online" refers to the use of a lottery machine that prints the ticket, rather than a scratch ticket, which is just ticket stock.]
Gwadosky recommended the panel reduce revenue expectations from the state lottery by $500,000 this budget year and that same reduction in each year of the next two-year budget.
Plowman said the state should not be using the concern Mainers have about paying for fuel this winter as a means to sell lottery tickets. She said it simply is not the right thing to do.
"We are very sensitive to the concerns of Senator Plowman," Gwadosky said. "The commission expressed similar concerns itself as they discussed this particular promotion."
He said the commission voted unanimously to proceed with the promotions, even though the issues raised by Plowman were discussed by the panel in a "healthy" discussion before the vote.
"To be honest about this, I cautioned them about this approach and some of the marketing people we have cautioned against this approach," Gwadosky said. "We didn't want to put more money behind this promotion than we did with other promotions because we think people would be sensitive to that and we didn't put more money into this than other promotions."
Plowman said lawmakers need to do more oversight and this promotion is an example of why more oversight is needed.