Gambling On Addiction

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY MAY 11, 2019

Should Florida’s education funding depend on the impulses of gambling addicts?

An interesting debate on this took place in Tallahassee almost in the background. I never heard the words “sin tax” uttered, but the practice of using the Florida Lottery to supply the public school system with revenue experienced significantly scrutiny.

State Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, in his first term passed what may be among the most financially meaningful bills of the session. Warning labels will now appear on lottery tickets reminding consumers these scratch-offs indeed feed the appetites of gamblers who compulsively chase that jackpot thrill.

The legislation evolved tremendously between Feb. 1, when Robinson filed it, and May 3, when it passed hours before session closed. Some figured Robinson’s original bill would cost Florida education more than $200 million. The last state revenue estimates figured the impact around $64 million in the first full year of implementation.

For comparison, the general fund for the Sarasota County school district this year was about $465 million. So this isn’t pocket change.

It’s worth noting those last estimates were based on a longer, more heavy-handed warning label than the Legislature ultimately approved. A 26-word passage in earlier legislation explicitly raised the specter of addiction while advising “the chanced of winning a big prize are very low.” The language ultimately adopted allowed two labels, either one saying “Lottery games may be addictive” or one saying “Play responsibly.”

I wonder which lottery officials will prefer?

The language may ultimately produce less fiscal impact than feared. But in some way, that’s a shame. This legislation raises an important, existential question about the lottery itself.

Florida allows relatively few forms of gambling, and voters in fact pretty much shut down one of those when they votes to stop dog racing in Florida. But lotto remains

Personally, I’ve no problem with people gambling, or with the government profiting from it. But we can’t ignore social repercussions or enable any type of addiction unchecked.

That’s the greater issue with sin taxes, those politically expedient fees that allow lawmakers to say ‘Smoke as much as you want as long as you also pay us $1.34 per pack. We charge excite taxes in Florida on tobacco and alcohol, and if voters approve recreational marijuana next year, expect a levy for every joint.

Since the state actually runs the lottery, it doesn’t get listed as a sin tax, but represents the philosophy in the extreme. Here, the state actually funds marketing campaigns encouraging an essentially unhealthy activity, but assuages any public guilt with the knowledge this helps the kids.

“The lottery is significantly regulated for a purpose,” Robinson said. He’s hopeful the warning labels don’t cost the state that much in lost education revenue, particularly with a shortened label.

Of course, if it does, that means are people thinking twice about buying stubs by the dozen in hopes pays for that ticket to Fiji (which will never happen).

State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, reached the heart of this issue when the bill hit the Senate floor. If the state shows such reluctance to warn against compulsive lotto purchases, “maybe we’re the ones addicted to this money,” he said. The next day, he voted against the bill, a somehow poignant acknowledgement of this hard truth.

Robinson’s original bill also tackled online scams and overseas electronic sales, other ways the state profits off abuse of lottery services. This year, those provisions couldn’t survive a single Senate hearing. The potential costs just seemed too high.

But that means there’s room for further conversation next year. Lucky us.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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