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Idaho lottery profits up, Washington down

Norman Southworth, left, a sales representative for the Idaho Lottery in the Idaho Falls area, indulges in a free hot dog while chatting with the lottery's
Norman Southworth, left, a sales representative for the Idaho Lottery in the Idaho Falls area, indulges in a free hot dog while chatting with the lottery's "PowerBall" mascot at a celebration marking the lottery's 20th anniversary on Tuesday in Boise. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE - Though the economic times are grim, there’s one way Idaho’s still making money: By chance.

Idaho’s state lottery announced Tuesday that its revenues for the recently concluded fiscal year set a record for the seventh time in eight years, coming in 2 percent over last year. That bucks a national trend that has many states seeing lower lottery proceeds this year, including Washington, where lottery proceeds were down 6 percent.

“When people have less disposable income, they go ahead and they spend it on things that they can definitely count on,” said Jacque Coe, communications director for the Washington State Lottery. “People are careful in a down economy.”

In Idaho, however, officials say people are still buying lottery tickets. “The principal reason is this is a low-cost form of entertainment for the people who play - I mean, it’s only a dollar,” said Idaho Lottery Director Jeff Anderson. “We know that people are cutting back on their expenditures for a lot of things.”

Idaho’s biggest-ever lottery winner, Brad Duke, who won $220.3 million in a Powerball drawing in 2005, said, “There’s always the chance, there’s always the hope. I suppose for some people, that goes a long ways - to invest a couple of bucks for some hope might give ‘em a little relief.”

Duke, 37, said he still plays the lottery from time to time. “It’s always been a hobby of mine - I like numbers games,” he said.

Since his big win, he’s gone from manager of a local Gold’s Gym to owner of a consulting firm that travels around the country and helps people run their gyms. He’s also done some traveling to indulge his hobby of downhill mountain biking, in which he competes, and he’s set up a family foundation that’s given more than $100,000 to charities including the Children’s Home, Project Patch, Hope House, the American Diabetes Association and the LiveStrong Foundation.

Duke, who still lives in the same Star, Idaho home as before his big win, said the philanthropy was the most rewarding part. He told state and lottery officials, “Thanks for making it possible for Idaho people to win big money.”

Idaho’s state lottery celebrated its 20th anniversary on Tuesday, with free hot dogs and birthday cake for anyone who showed up to a celebration across from the state Capitol in downtown Boise.

Anderson said the Idaho lottery sold its first ticket in 1989 to billionaire J.R. Simplot; that ticket didn’t win.

The Washington lottery’s proceeds go to education, stadium construction, economic development and treatment for problem gambling. When it first was established in 1982 during a big budget crunch, the money went to the state’s general fund.

Idaho’s lottery proceeds are split evenly between public schools and the state’s permanent building fund, which maintains state buildings.

Washington hasn’t released its final figures yet for the fiscal year that just ended, but the previous year’s proceeds of $130.3 million set a record. Idaho’s proceeds of $35 million in the just-concluded fiscal year came on sales of $139.6 million.

Nationwide, state lottery proceeds grew steadily right through the last big recession in the early 2000’s, but that’s not happening this time around for most states.

“I think that there was some sense that gambling was recession-proof, and I think that there’s been evidence in various states this year that show that not to be the case,” said Ian Pulsipher, policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “There’s considerable evidence that gambling revenues are down in most of the states.”

When Idaho’s state lottery commission chairman, Roger Jones, made ready to present this year’s check to Gov. Butch Otter on Tuesday, he said to laughter, “We’re able to give another million dollars more than last year. … Maybe it’s all spent, Butch, I don’t know.”

Otter approvingly called the lottery “probably the clearest form of self-taxation that we have in the state.”