AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said he believes that the Maine State Lottery “absolutely” targets the poor, and that if legislators passed a bill to end the lottery he would sign it immediately.

The governor’s comments, made Tuesday morning during a weekly appearance on Bangor radio station WVOM, came just days after the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted to fast-track a study of the $230 million lottery operation and its marketing practices.

The lottery pays for itself through ticket sales and contributes $50 million annually to the state’s general fund. That accounts for about 1.5 percent of all state revenue on a two-year state budget of $6.5 billion.

LePage said the lottery takes advantage of people who are “looking for a silver bullet” as a way out of poverty.

“I can tell you that I’ve seen it,” LePage told radio hosts Ric Tyler and George Hale. “I get emails from folks who send in receipts of people that use their EBT cards to buy $80 worth of lottery tickets, $50 worth of lottery tickets.”

“Now, is it rampant?” he continued. “I don’t know. I don’t follow all the poor people around. But I do know that I was never a fan of it, and I’m still not a fan of it. It’s gambling.”

The issue has caught the attention of a number of legislators following a 2015 Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting series called “Selling hope to the hopeless,” which found lottery ticket sales in the state’s poorest towns were up to 200 times more per capita than sales in wealthier areas. The series, which ran in the Portland Press Herald, also found that lottery sales jump by 10 percent for every 1 percent increase in unemployment across the state.

Lottery officials have said that advertising for scratch tickets does not target poor towns or counties. However, LePage said the state considered introducing other lottery games that appeal to wealthier residents but decided against it.

“We tried to bring in keno,” he said, referring to a lottery-like game that has been offered in casinos around the country. “Keno was going to be in restaurants and places where there would be more affluent people playing the game, and they voted it down. They killed it and said you can never do it. And they go to the conventional lottery.”

While lawmakers have authorized an investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s watchdog agency, LePage predicted that trying to reform the lottery would be ineffective at best.

The Legislature “can only make it worse,” he said. “Everybody who’s poor looks for the silver bullet to get out of poverty. I’m just telling you, it’s human nature. …”

When Tyler, the radio host, asked if a lack of government oversight leaves “the lottery free and clear, without a check and balance, to target the poor,” LePage answered that no form of oversight would prevent poor residents from buying lottery tickets.

“Ric, this is just like gun control,” LePage said. “The only people that don’t pay attention to gun control is criminals. And if criminals want a gun, they get a gun. If people want to buy a lottery ticket, they get a lottery ticket. I mean, you can prevent it from going on EBT cards; they’ll just go to the ATM, get the cash and go buy the tickets.”

“Regulations, regulations, regulations,” the governor complained. “It isn’t the answer.”

The lottery has historically received much less legislative oversight than state programs funded by tax dollars. The lottery also has largely escaped repeal efforts, and most amendments have added, rather than removed, lottery games.

The lottery’s popularity is driven partly by the prospect of huge payoffs for players – even against long odds. The Powerball game, for example, has fueled sales of 1.3 million tickets in Maine this week, as residents hope for a shot at a jackpot of at least $1.5 billion.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta.

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