The Curse of the California State Lottery

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

School advocates have always had a love-hate relationship with the California State Lottery.  On the one hand the Lottery has supplied billions of dollars to the schools since it was passed by voters 36 years ago. On the other hand, when school supporters seek more money for education—as they do on a regular basis—they run up against the refrain, “I thought the lottery was funding the schools.”

The advocates will argue that the Lottery only provides a small portion of school funding, less than 2 percent of the total education budget in a recent calculation. The reason for the reaction is because schools were used as the advance troops in the battle to change the California Constitution with an initiative in 1984 backed by gambling interests. Voters associate the Lottery with the schools for better or worse.

Now the state auditor has criticized the lottery’s share of money offered the schools. Critiquing the oversight of the Lottery by both the Lottery managers and the State Controller’s Office, which is responsible for making sure the funding is accurate and that the monies are handed out according to the law, the issue that has bugged the school folks comes back into view at an interesting time—just when schools are pushing a large state bond for school construction on the Super Tuesday ballot and as the school backers gear up for other tax raising efforts in local districts during the primary election.

Both the Controller’s Office and Lottery officials complain that the audit is flawed. That will be settled but the news that the schools have been shorted by the Lottery has been planted.

How might it affect Tuesday’s vote or subsequent votes on school funding? Will voters make the association between the news story and the election? You can almost hear the calls of, “If the schools got the money they deserved from the Lottery they wouldn’t need more funds.”

Certainly, the $36 million owed the schools is only a tiny fraction of what the bond hopes to raise. But when you get in the numbers followed by the words millions or billions, casual observers don’t always consider the details. Both numbers are big.

The generation that voted for the California State Lottery, and remembers well the declaration that the money would be a solution for the schools, is getting smaller. But the marketing that the Lottery supplies school funding is still part of the promotional effort.

The issue of lottery money going to the schools is back. Senator Ling Ling Chang, who requested the audit, said in a press release after the finding was released, “The findings today demonstrate what we suspected all along. That the California Lottery has a culture of profits first and schools last.”

Whether the news of school funding withheld by the Lottery will have any impact on the coming election remains to be seen.

But the curse of the Lottery and its mixed impacts–added resources to the schools accompanied by frustrations because of the Lottery’s role in school funding–lingers.

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