AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday to assess the Maine Lottery’s marketing techniques and impact on poor regions of the state.

Lawmakers had accelerated an investigation of the lottery commission’s operations earlier this month, but Friday they tasked the Legislature’s independent investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, with refining the scope of the probe.

“What does the Maine State Lottery consider when making decisions about games to be offered and how they will be marketed?” said OPEGA director Beth Ashcroft, outlining the goals of the study. “Are any particular demographic groups or regions of the state specifically targeted in the lottery’s advertising and marketing? Who has responsibility for overseeing those decisions?”

The investigation also will assess oversight of the lottery and determine how winning a lottery prize may affect a person’s eligibility for public assistance, such as food stamps or MaineCare.

On Friday, lawmakers also insisted that OPEGA request and review all of the documents that guide the lottery’s marketing and advertising strategies, including some considered “business confidential” and shielded from public scrutiny.

“It seems to me we need to understand what those techniques are,” said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting. “These questions are pretty easily answered if the information is forthcoming. If it’s not, it will be a whole different issue.”

To date, documents detailing the lottery’s marketing tactics have not been disclosed.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting first requested the lottery’s annual marketing plan, as well as documents guiding social media strategy and public relations, under the state’s open records act on June 5, 2015.

At the time, Department of Administrative and Financial Services spokesman David Heidrich said the lottery’s contract with Boston-based ad agency Fuseideas, signed in February 2015, was “relatively new” and that the “items had not been requested.”

Another records request for the same marketing plans was filed six months later, on Dec. 8, 2015, but the department has yet to provide the documents.

Lottery officials said in an interview in July that marketing strategy plans from prior years, under previously contracted advertising agencies, also were unavailable.

In addition, hundreds of pages describing the marketing tactics used by Scientific Games, a Las Vegas-based multinational company that holds a contract to operate Maine’s lottery, are shielded from public scrutiny and labeled “confidential information.”

“It’s not just as easy, potentially, as looking at a contract,” Ashcroft said. “We don’t know what role, if any, Scientific Games has in marketing decisions. But I am assuming we will be able to get hold of whatever contract speaks to marketing and advertising for the lottery.”

Legislators of both parties began calling for increased transparency and oversight of the Maine Lottery following a 2015 series by the center called “Selling hope to the hopeless” that found lottery ticket sales in the state’s poorest towns were up to 200 times more per capita than sales in wealthier areas. It also found that lottery sales jump by 10 percent for every 1 percentage point increase in unemployment across the state.

Research conducted in Maine by Cornell University behavioral economist Dr. David Just has shown that people who have recently suffered a “shock” of some kind – unemployment, for example – are more likely to play.

The center subsequently found that people receiving public benefits, such as food stamps, aid for needy families or Medicaid, have likely spent hundreds of millions on lottery tickets over the past five years, enough to take home at least $22.4 million in prizes over $1,000 since 2010.

Those revelations sparked an outcry among legislators of both parties, who said rules should be adopted to prevent people from purchasing lottery tickets with public benefit dollars.

In a radio interview last week, Gov. Paul LePage said he believes the Maine State Lottery “absolutely” targets the state’s poor and that if legislators passed a bill to end the lottery, he would sign it immediately.

Lottery officials deny their advertising specifically targets poor towns or counties. The lottery advertises primarily at the stores where tickets are sold and on television and radio, so an advertisement in Caribou is likely to be the same as one seen in Kittery, they say.

Lawmakers on Friday emphasized the legislative investigation should examine lottery sales data to determine whether Maine’s poor play more than wealthier demographics.

“Who ends up spending their money on lottery tickets?” asked Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville. “I think it’s an important thing to know that predominantly poor citizens are in fact the ones buying out of desperation.”

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability study of the lottery is due to be completed by mid-2016.

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

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