If nothing else this year, the current batch of Idaho lawmakers has displayed its unbridled contempt for the people.
The latest milestone: Last week, 10 members of the House State Affairs Committee canceled out the votes of the nearly 213,000 Idahoans who in 1988 passed a constitutional amendment creating the Idaho State Lottery.
In so doing, the voters were answering the pleas of retailers along the border, who helplessly watched their customers cross into Washington and Oregon in order to purchase a lottery ticket — and stuck around to buy gas or a few other items while they were at it.
The voters were striking a blow for personal liberty. If Idahoans wanted the freedom to buy a lottery ticket, why should a few blue noses in state government have the right to stop them?
They were opting for a shared experience. After decades of resistance, the U.S. in the late 1980s was warming up to the idea of state lotteries and Idahoans no longer wanted to be shut out of this national phenomenon.
In a such a small state, a lottery was never going to deliver a robust dividend. You could not replace tax support for teacher salaries with it — and lottery advocates made no such claims. But over the years, Idaho’s lottery generated a respectable profit for school buildings and public works.
During that time, the operation has been free of scandal. And in keeping with the standard set in its earliest years, the advertising has remained low-key and sober, avoiding the over-the-top promises of easy riches.
You can argue — as does the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Wayne Hoffman — that any state lottery takes money from those who can least afford it. Idaho’s lottery draws sales of $277 million to produce a dividend in the neighborhood of $55 million to $60 million. Producing that much extra money would require eliminating a miniscule number of sales tax exemptions with far less disruption to the economy.
But that’s not what motivated lawmakers last week.
What got their attention was a measure authorizing the state to continue its involvement with the popular Powerball, which enables 45 states large and small to pool their resources and offer players huge jackpots. A small state such as Idaho could never do that on its own.
Powerball is expanding to include Australia this year and Great Britain next year. State law limits Idaho lotteries to partnerships with other states and Canada.
What should have been a housekeeping bill became a referendum on those two countries’ gun ownership policies. Powerball revenues, said Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, might go toward “anti-gun” causes in Australia “which they see as good and we see as not good.”
The complaints became bipartisan when Democratic Rep. Chris Mathias of Boise raised state sovereignty concerns.
Of course, this level of micromanaging eluded legislators in the past when Powerball linked Idaho to the anti-gun policies in the District of Columbia. Nor will you find states more antithetical to Idaho’s pro-gun culture than its fellow Powerball states of New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois and, increasingly, Washington.
Nevertheless, the House committee got results. State Lottery Director Jeff Anderson says Idaho will sell its last Powerball ticket in late August.
While Powerball is a small part of the state lottery’s gross revenues, it’s quite lucrative. It’s cheap to operate, compared to the cost of printing and distributing scratch tickets, for instance. So on sales of about $28 million, Powerball generates $14 million in profits — or about a quarter of the lottery’s entire dividend.
Property taxpayers are going to feel the sting if these lawmakers don’t reverse themselves. For more than a decade, yearly state lottery profits up to about $34 million were split between the school building and public building accounts. Most of the rest went toward covering interest payments on local school building bonds.
Lose the Powerball profit and there may not be much left for the bond levy program.
Once again, legislative hubris has confronted the law of unintended consequences. — M.T.