The schools won’t win

Pardon me while I rant, but a recent proposal to cut California Lottery payments to public schools has resulted in one of my infrequent towering rages (not a pretty sight, amigos…).

According to a recent Associated Press report from Sacramento, the measure being considered by the California Legislature could slash California schools’ already paltry 34 percent share of total lottery sales to roughly 25 percent.

The reason?

Here’s where it gets really interesting.

Proponents of the action – including East Coast lotto machine maker GTECH Corp. – claim that the cut will allow the state to offer bigger lottery winnings, thereby attracting more players and actually boosting the amount of money schools receive from the lottery.

Uh-huh.

Lottery legislative liaison Randy Cheek explained it this way to Associated Press:

“Do you want a slice of eight-inch pizza or do you want a slice from the 20-inch pizza?”

Sorry, Randy. I hate to sound greedy, but this has gone far enough. Why don’t you just give us three slices from the eight-inch pizza and don’t keep the change?

Let’s face it, pal, that 20-inch pizza doesn’t even exist yet and it may never exist. There’s no guarantee that boosting lottery prizes by cutting school payments is actually going to attract enough players to make up for the educational system’s lost revenue.

And if this scheme doesn’t work, don’t think that anybody’s going to say “Hey, that was a really stupid move. Let’s just kick that 34 percent back to the schools again and start over.”

It’ll never happen.

After all, we’re dealing with politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats here.

Remember way back in 1984 when lottery supporters were enthusiastically stuffing the statewide gambling initiative down voters’ throats with catchy phrases like “And the schools win, too!”

And we fell for it.

Are we also going to fall for “If we cut the schools’ share by another 10 percent, they’ll make lots more money!”

I hope not.

Why not try something radically different instead?

Here’s my pie-in-the-sky plan: First, boost the school’s percentage of the total lottery sales to 50 percent. Then, make it easier for lottery players to win smaller pots.

Drop one of the Lotto numbers and give players a chance for initial winnings of, say, $2 million to $5 million.

Think about it – would you rather have a halfway decent chance of winning $3 million, or ridiculously high odds of not winning $25 million?

(Refer back to Mr. Cheek’s somewhat soggy pizza slice analogy.)

I’ll take a shot at that $3 million every time if I know I have at least an ice cube’s chance in hell of winning it.

And all the while I’ll know our kids are getting a bigger slice of that magical lottery pie.

That was, I believe, what it was all about in the first place.

Originally published April 11, 2004