Jan 24, 2017, 9:39 am
If Massachusetts lawmakers pass a plan backed by State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, the state lottery could be coming to phones and computers across the Commonwealth.
After falling short in the last legislative session, proponents of expanding the state lottery into the digital world are renewing their push.
"I had to come around to this thinking because I myself hadn't thought about online lottery games, but I saw the way millennials are operating is really online," Goldberg said. "This past Christmas shopping season, Cyber Monday outperformed Black Friday. We really want to be prepared to have a more modern, forward-thinking product."
Goldberg introduced a bill last session to authorize the Lottery Commission to explore offering online games, and recently re-filed it in the new session. State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, has filed a similar bill that would allow online lottery games.
Being able to play the Lottery over a phone or computer, Goldberg said, would be a way to "modernize" an aging system, Goldberg said.
The push comes at a time scratch ticket sales, the lottery's biggest moneymaker, are slumping. Through the first five months of fiscal 2017, scratch ticket sales were down 3 percent compared to the same span in the previous year.
Goldberg's office has projected the lottery will return $965 million in funding to municipal governments this year in the form of unrestricted aid, down from $986.9 million last fiscal year.
Flanagan said lottery revenue is an important source of funding for cities and towns.
"In 2009 when lottery sales weren't as good as they are now, we heard from cities and towns asking, 'What about the lottery money?'" Flanagan said.
Goldberg said it's too early to predict startup costs for an online lottery system or potential revenues.
"This is in a very preliminary stage," she said. "It's a request for authorization to even be able to look at what could potentially be an online lottery program," she said.
She said it's also too soon to speculate about what online lottery games could potentially look like, whether they would be online versions of existing games or entirely new products.
Some states began considering online lotteries in 2011, when the U.S. department of Justice decided the Wire Act of 1961 banned sports betting, but not gambling, over the internet.
Since then, Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky and Georgia have passed laws allowing online lottery games, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Minnesota began offering online lottery games in 2014, then passed a law the following year to suspend the program indefinitely.
New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware allow other forms of online gambling.
Lottery critic Les Bernal, a former Beacon Hill staffer who now serves as executive director of the national non-profit Stop Predatory Gambling, said state lotteries are disproportionately fueled by sales in low- and moderate-income communities.
"This is completely driven by a powerful gambling interests who stand to benefit and a handful of state officials who want to extract more money from average-income folks in the state," he said.
Exposure to online lottery games, he said, could create a whole new group of gambling addicts.
"It's dangerous to anyone who gets exposed to Internet gambling," he said. "Think about all the people who spend all their time on Internet games and social media games. That the state government wants to exploit and cheat people is one of the biggest injustices in our state today."
The Massachusetts proposals include provisions intended to discourage compulsive gambling. The lottery, for example, would establish a maximum limit on the amount of money people could deposit their online lottery accounts.
"What experts tell us is it is much easier to track and put in programs to control compulsive gaming online," Goldberg said. "When you're operating from an IP address or phone, you can develop programs to identify and restrict a person's own gambling."
Flanagan said she's been approached with criticism that she's trying to prey on the poor.
"That's not the case at all," she said. "What I'm trying to do is keep up with technology. The reality is people do everything on their phones. And the truth of the matter is people have a different way of going about business now. We have a generation of people who don't go into the gas station and pay with cash."
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