A legislative committee is moving forward with a review of the Maine State Lottery to determine whether its sales efforts are being targeted at poor people.

The Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday to investigate the lottery’s marketing strategy in the wake of a study that suggested lottery marketing efforts are being directed at areas of Maine with the highest unemployment and lowest income levels, where lottery sales are the highest per capita in the state.

Sen. David Burns, a Republican from Whiting who introduced the measure and is a member of the committee, said the Legislature needs to know that Maine’s taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately. The state spends about $8 million a year to market the lottery.

“At this point we really don’t know what (marketing) methodology is being used,” said Burns, whose district includes Washington County and parts of Hancock County.

Burns said while the lottery review was already on the oversight committee’s to-do list, he wanted to expedite the investigation.

“The more the public can know and the more the transparency, the better,” said Burns.

Washington County, which has the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the state, is home to six of the 10 towns whose residents spend the most per capita on lottery tickets, according to the study by Cornell University. The study was done as part of a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting investigation published in the Portland Press Herald in October.

The lottery generates $230 million a year in sales, of which $50 million goes into the state treasury. The state spends $100,000 on problem gambling initiatives annually.

The investigation found residents of the state’s poorest towns spend as much as 200 times more per person on the lottery than residents in wealthier areas. It also found the state-run lottery has more than tripled its advertising budget since 2003 and has never been subjected to a study of its impact on the lives and finances of the poor and unemployed, who spend the most on lottery tickets.

Cornell University found that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment in a ZIP code, sales of lottery tickets jump 10 percent. The investigation found that the marketing strategy used by Scientific Games, the multinational company in Las Vegas contracted to run Maine’s lottery, is confidential and shielded from public view.

Burns said while the documents that outline the marketing strategy may be proprietary and confidential, there must be some information that the public has a right to know about.

Burns said Saturday he had received no negative feedback about the upcoming review.

“I haven’t heard anyone say it is a waste of time,” he said.

Sen. Christopher Johnson, a Democrat from Somerville and a member of the oversight committee, said he has long-term concerns about the lottery.

“I don’t think we should be balancing the state budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people in the state, so it is important to know whether the lottery is actively targeting the very poor with its market practices,” said Johnson.

Burns said the review will be done by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which will set out the parameters of the effort for a vote by the oversight committee on Jan. 22. He said no timetable for a report back has been set at this point and the oversight committee could broaden its investigation in the future.


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