Inquirer Editorial: Wrong number for lottery

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett gestures while speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 in State College, Pa. The NCAA overstepped its authority by imposing hefty sanctions on Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, Corbett said in announcing a federal lawsuit against the college athletics governing body. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

Gov. Corbett's zeal to privatize management of the Pennsylvania Lottery raises more doubts about the deal, even as it increases the likelihood that the state will needlessly hand over the hugely profitable games - and a share of the winnings - to a British firm.

Corbett's decision, announced Friday, to let sole-bidder Camelot Global Services PA take over the 41-year-old lottery was a snub to Harrisburg lawmakers, inasmuch as the Republican-controlled legislature was poised to bring the first real public oversight to the deal.

In doing so, Corbett is reinforcing the impression - whether true or not - that the arrangement he negotiated behind the scenes with Camelot would not stand up very well under close scrutiny.

Indeed, a capacity-crowd state Senate hearing on Monday, which served as a forum for reviewing the deal, produced testimony on a counterproposal that lottery workers' union officials contended would boost state revenues without privatization.

Were the state to add keno games and online gambling to boost lottery sales, AFSCME Council 13 calculated that Pennsylvania would see hundreds of millions more in income than the roughly half-billion-dollar bump to profits during Camelot's first six years of a 20- to 30-year deal.

Under continued state operation, the jobs of dozens of lottery agency employees now in question also wouldn't be threatened, although a Camelot official Monday said the firm's goal also was to retain many workers.

While the governor's push for more revenue makes sense, in that lottery proceeds are under strain to fund services to the state's growing elderly population, clearly that goal doesn't have to include privatization.

There's no question that the services funded by the lottery - senior centers and social services, discounted drugs, free transit rides, and property tax and rent rebates - are important. As such, state officials should make them a priority, regardless of whether the lottery shoulders the entire expense.

Then, too, the pressure to boost lottery sales could work against the interest of seniors, who may be lured into becoming bigger lottery players themselves.

Camelot says its plan is to expand the pool of lottery-game players as it has done in running Britain's national lottery. But by any strategy, it would mean more chances for Pennsylvanians to gamble at a time when many already live within an easy drive of a full-blown casino.

By moving ahead, Corbett cut off meaningful debate on an expansion of gambling. Beyond squelching public input, the administration also may be overstepping the authority it claims, if lawmakers' approval is needed before adding keno and such. State Treasurer Rob McCord and others have raised that question.

Finally, the lottery's $1 billion yearly profit and continued record sales make it a puzzling choice to privatize now. The current system is working, which may be why a Democratic senator opined that it is Camelot that, for now, has "won the lottery."

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