Problem gambling enters into Powerball debate

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(Host) The head of the state’s committee on problem gambling sought more money from lawmakers on Tuesday. She wants funds for her program if the Legislature supports a plan to have Vermont join the national Powerball lottery game.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) It’s estimated that Powerball would bring the state an additional $3.2 million a year in new revenue. The Legislature has given its approval to Powerball in previous sessions but it never became law because Governor Howard Dean threatened to veto any bill that included it. This session the circumstances are different because Governor Jim Douglas supports Powerball.

Bill McDonald owns a small general store in Waits River. It’s located about 13 miles from New Hampshire, a state that is part of the Powerball network. McDonald told members of the House Ways and Means committee that he supports Powerball:

(McDonald) “We’re sending our customers and our tax dollars across the border daily, not just on game days. Once there, they are reminded of the difference in tax structure, no deposit fees and other differences; that also some prices in New Hampshire tend to be less than what I can charge for the same product. Powerball or the Big Game can’t be a debate over whether we have a lottery. It’s already there – it’s just another game in the mix and it’s a game that many people want.”

(Kinzel) Vermont Lottery Director Alan Yandow told the committee that surveys show that one of every three people in Vermont who play lottery games are currently buying Powerball tickets in other states. Yandow says revenues from the existing state lottery games are declining because players are looking for bigger jackpots and he says Powerball is one way to increase these revenues:

(Yandow) “The players have changed over the course of time. The game Megabucks is an older game. I think it would fit nicely as a secondary lotto game, but as a primary lotto game it’s something the players are saying we’re not that interested in at this point.”

(Kinzel) Joy Mitchell is the director, and the sole employee, of the state’s problem gambling program. The program operates a toll free hotline to help addicted gamblers. Mitchell says roughly 4% of all Vermonters have a very serious gambling problem and she’s concerned that these numbers will increase with Powerball:

(Mitchell) “I’m hearing lots of stories of excessive gambling. Some of it is on scratch tickets. Some people say that they’ve spent all their paycheck at the general store, other people hop, skip and jump around the general stores.”

(Kinzel) Most of the committee members appear to support Powerball. If the panel backs the bill – the plan will then be reviewed by the House Appropriations Committee. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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