The Maryland State Lottery: It’s Big Business–But in The Public Interest, is it Good Business?

August 1991 / Abell Reports / Community Development

Last year, it brought into the state’s general fund over $335 million; over 15 years, $3 billion. But at what cost? An assessment as the Maryland Lottery nears its 20th year.

“The lottery eases the burden on the taxpayer. It is the only source of state revenue not derived from taxation.”

– Director, Illinois State Lottery

“I’m against gambling because it feeds the get-rich-quick illusion that debilitates society; because gambling causes individual ruin, despair and suicide, and corrupts a state that seeks a piece of its action.”

– William Safire, New York Times


Last year by the thousands Marylanders bought more than $800,000,000 in lottery tickets (“Pick 3,” “Pick4,” “Lotto,” “Winner Take All,” and “Instant Games”) at 2,400 retail outlets in 23 counties and Baltimore City–many standing in line to do so. In that same year, the lottery paid  winners about $390,000,000 (approximately half the amount bet); it paid $41,000,000 in commissions and fees to agents, $13,500,000 to itself for operating expenses–and $335,000,000 to the state general fund.

Big business. But not necessarily, in terms of the public interest, good business. Lotteries have historically been the object of suspicion and denunciation. Prior to 1963, they were banned by every state. But today across America the numbers of dollars being bet and the numbers of people betting increase dramatically with each passing year. In Maryland, there is a greater and greater dependency on lottery revenue to fund services (including services to the poor). As the lottery experience in Maryland approaches its 20th anniversary year, there is a growing need to examine how, in terms of its mission, the Maryland lottery is serving the citizenry to whose best interests it is committed.

The mission of the lottery was clearly to raise money, and although lottery proponents claim that the lottery also serves the community by providing entertainment, that point was not made by proponents when the lottery bill was being debated in the legislature. Is the community satisfied with the performance of the lottery as a revenue raising agency, and, at the same time, that it accomplishes its goals in a way that meets the responsibilities implicit in the franchise?