Time to rethink Oregon's lottery system
"It does good things." That's the Oregon Lottery's slogan.
And, to the extent you can blindly ignore how the lottery generates its funds, it is accurate. As soon as you weigh the effects of gambling though, it becomes clear that a totally accurate slogan would read: "It does regressive things."
Sadly, most Oregonians and many of its elected officials choose to accept the cheerier, partial depiction of the lottery. The alternative — recognizing the cumulative impact of gambling — is too much to bear given the state's reliance on the lottery for budgetary stability. But, like gamblers starting addiction treatment, it's time Oregon recognizes that it has a problem.
States ought to incentivize good behavior. Instead, the Oregon Lottery is actively thinking about new ways it can get Oregonians to spend their money on one of the most wasteful ways imaginable. The Oregon Lottery's stated goal for 2018 was to, "evolve the lottery brand promise to attract new players and retailers and appeal to a broad and diverse player and retailer base."
As reported by Willamette Week, Berry Pack, the head of the agency, has a five-pronged approach to accomplishing this goal. Under Pack's direction, the Oregon Lottery is exploring how to place lottery games in more locations — including gas stations adjacent to tribal casinos — and in more enticing forms, such as upgraded video lottery games.
Fiscally responsible states don't study harming their residents. Nor do they double down on diminishing revenue streams. Oregon is guilty of both. The state does not appear ready to wean itself off a horrible habit. Lottery funds made up 5.3 percent of the state's budget in the 2014 fiscal year, compared to 1 percent and 0.8 percent in California and Washington, respectively. Nationwide, Oregon's reliance on the funds was only topped by South Dakota (6.6 percent).
Oregon's leaders should see the decline in lottery funds as a stimulus to more ardently pursue new revenue streams. For example, officials could use the troubling fiscal picture ahead to rally support around a carbon tax, something that would actually do good things.
Principled states know when it's time to change their behavior. From John Oliver to The Washington Post, news outlets across the country have called out Oregon for its perpetuation of an unquestionably regressive activity. These interventions have gone unheeded: reports, charts and jokes have apparently evaded the attention of Oregon's elected officials.
We are collectively responsible now for making sure the next intervention is successful. Voters concerned about income inequality, marginalized communities and retiring in dignity should all make ending the Oregon lottery a litmus test for their vote.
The cover of the Oregon Lottery's comprehensive annual financial report carries more meaning than its authors likely know: it's a fish swimming upstream. The image — one that has nothing to do with gambling — illustrates the level of discomfort officials have in recognizing what gambling actually looks like.
A more appropriate photo would have been one of someone like my grandfather — who sat behind a machine, spending money and time he didn't have. The image also conveys the challenges ahead the state if it opts to ignore signs that lottery funds are waning. Currently, the state has decided not to celebrate a great trend — diminished interest in gambling among youth — and has focused instead on finding new ways to get young people hooked on a habit that stifles savings and tears families apart.
The Oregon Lottery: "It does regressive things."
Kevin Frazier is a Tualatin resident