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Is it time for an Alaska lottery?

Ben Anderson
flickr / Upupa4me

When the record-breaking $587 million Powerball lottery jackpot was announced Wednesday night, the hubbub largely passed Alaskans by. Alaska is one of only eight states that don’t participate in the Powerball lottery, which means residents of the Last Frontier missed out, again, on one of the largest lottery payouts in history.

Two people from Arizona and Missouri, unidentified as of Thursday morning, were jackpot winners and will split the prize with the winning numbers of 5, 16, 22, 23, 29 and a Powerball of 6.

The potentially massive payout sparked ticket-buying frenzies in the Lower 48, and lotto officials fielded requests from as far away as Europe, according to ABC News.   And for Alaskans who weren’t lucky enough to be traveling in a state that sells Powerball tickets, well, we were out of luck: The Powerball frequently asked questions are pretty explicit about buying tickets outside of eligible states.

“No one can sell lottery tickets by mail or over the Internet across state lines or the U.S. national border. No one. Not even us. No one. No, not even that web site. Or that one. You really don't need to send me questions about a specific site. Like all others, that one also cannot legally sell lottery tickets across a state border or the U.S. border. No.”

Morality games

Instead, gaming in Alaska is mostly limited to a few meager pull-tab and bingo parlors located around the state, even in small rural communities, where bingo is often one of the few outside-the-home recreations.

That’s not for lack of trying, though -- the Alaska State Legislature worked for several years on getting some kind of gaming package passed. It started in the early 2000s, when then-House Speaker and Republican Eagle River Rep. Pete Kott pushed for a statewide lottery and video poker as a potential way to increase revenue as the state faced budget shortfalls.

“I think the time has come,” Kott said in a 2003 Anchorage Daily News interview. “Every other state is taking advantage of it." 

Opponents of the bill objected to it primarily on moral grounds, and the proposal was eventually mostly pared down to seedier-sounding card rooms, which narrowly passed the House before facing tough opposition in the Senate.

The issue hasn’t come up since, likely in part because of surpluses caused by the passage of the ACES oil tax bill and high oil prices in recent years. Arlen Harris with the Washington state lottery said that it would take an act of the state legislature -- similar to one that occurred recently in Washington that added the state to the ranks of Powerball participants -- to see a lottery realized in Alaska.

“It’s my understanding that the need for a lottery hasn’t been there as much, because of revenue from oil and other natural resources,” Harris said.

Scratch-offs for text books

But the time might be right for the idea to be floated again. The Legislature is facing tough choices on whether or not to cut oil taxes, which would likely also require a cut in spending to avoid growing budget deficits. A lottery could be one way to raise additional revenue, and that revenue can even be dedicated to one beneficiary.

That’s how Texas came to a compromise after its own fight over establishing a lottery: 25 percent of all lottery proceeds go to an education fund in Texas, totaling a reported $14 billion over 14 years. In New York, the school system got $2.9 billion from the lottery in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Those states have huge populations compared to Alaska, though, and the benefit from a smaller population base is less certain.

Alaska remains one of only seven states without any kind of statewide lottery, joining Louisiana, Mississippi, Hawaii, Wyoming, Utah and, perhaps surprisingly, Nevada -- the U.S. gambling capital. Statutes of the Alaska Department of Revenue -- which oversees gaming in the state -- do allow for some local lotteries, pending approval. Jeff Prather, supervisor with the state Department of Gaming, said that Alaska’s “lotteries” operate more like raffles.

“There’s a prize limitation for licensees or permitees who are conducting gaming,” Prather said.  “They cannot award more than $2 million in prizes in a year for all activities combined.”

One big raffle took place in 2009, which saw the $500,000 payout go to a convicted sex offender in an event intended, in part, to benefit a charity that helps victims of sexual abuse. A similar lottery the next year saw less interest than the first.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com