Supporters of state lotteries see the games and their burgeoning popularity due to multimillion-dollar jackpots as a way to increase government revenue without raising taxes, but critics say the games are a bad bet for many people.
In states where lottery revenue goes toward education, the lottery can stiffen public resistance to paying higher taxes to support schools, critics say.They also say lotteries have no impact on the services they were designed to finance because the money is used to replace, rather than supplement, other revenue sources.
And a long-held argument against lotteries is that they take money from those who can least afford it.
Despite the criticism, lottery sales are sizzling. Multimillion-dollar payouts are so common they hardly make news anymore.
In October, California gave away a $61.98 million jackpot, the world's largest lottery prize ever.
Lottery ticket sales are expected to reach $14 billion to $15 billion this year, up from $11.4 billion last year.
And they'll probably rise. Six new state lotteries are opening this year, and voters in four other states gave the go-ahead on Election Day for lotteries. Already, 28 states and Washington, D.C., have lotteries.
Idaho voters approved a state lottery in the general election.
Of the $11.4 billion, which excludes commissions to ticket sellers, about $4.8 billion went into state coffers and $6 billion went back to winners. The rest went for administrative costs, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Some state legislatures set a percentage of lottery revenue that must go back to the state; some permit lottery officials to decide the state's cut.
In five states, lottery revenue is split among several beneficiaries. In Colorado, half the revenue goes to capital construction, 40 percent pays for conservation, and 10 percent for parks and recreation.
Twelve states put lottery revenue in the state's general fund. In eight states, lottery money pays for school-related expenses.
But critics say lottery money has no impact on budgets in most states.
"In many respects it is inappropriate to say that as the lottery goes up, education spending goes up," said Robert H. Koff, dean of the School of Education at the State University of New York in Albany.
J. Blaine Lewis Jr., head of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, said it would be a mistake to rely on lottery revenue to increase expenditures, because lottery sales fluctuate. "What if your lottery goes down 5 percent? Then you have 5 percent less than you need," he said.
In some states, educators object to getting money from a lottery based on "moral grounds," said Illinois School Boards Association spokesman Jerry Glaub.
But California educators have a different objection.
"I think California educators would be delighted to have the lottery in place had it not undermined other efforts to increase funding," said James W. Guthrie, a University of California professor.