It’s a gamble: Will new Lottery warning labels shortchange Florida’s education budget?

By: - June 26, 2019 7:26 am

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Did Florida lawmakers legislate “responsibly” when they passed a measure that would require Florida Lottery tickets to warn buyers about the addictive nature of gambling?

It will be up to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to decide that question.

On Tuesday, legislative leaders sent DeSantis a bill (HB 629) that will require all Lottery tickets, advertisements and promotions to carry either the message of “WARNING: LOTTERY GAMES MAY BE ADDICTIVE” or “PLAY RESPONSIBLY,” beginning Jan. 1. The warning must cover at least 10 percent of the ticket’s surface.

Florida would be the first state lottery in North America to require such a prominent warning, according to lottery industry officials.

DeSantis says he has concerns about the bill, indicating a veto is a real possibility.
Former Gov. Rick Scott rejected a similar bill in 2017.

“This bill imposes burdensome regulations on the Lottery and its retail partners, and many of the notice provisions are duplicative of current Lottery initiatives,” Scott said in his veto message two years ago.

Scott noted that the Lottery already uses a “play responsibly” message and that each ticket contains the contact information for a gambling-addiction helpline (1-888-ADMIT-IT).

Another major issue for Scott and DeSantis is the impact that the warning could have on Lottery sales, since the warnings might deter people from buying them.

The Florida Lottery, which began in 1988, sold over $7 billion worth of tickets in 2018-19. And more than a quarter of the proceeds — $1.8 billion – funds education programs each year. A major beneficiary is the Bright Futures scholarship program, which covers all or part of tuition and fees for students attending state colleges and universities.

The state’s latest analysis shows the gambling warning could cause Lottery ticket sales to plunge by $253 million once fully implemented in 2020-21. It would reduce the Lottery contribution to schools by $64.4 million, the analysis says.

Scott cited the potential hit on school funding in his decision to reject the prior proposal. He said the warning requirement was “in direct conflict with the Lottery’s constitutional mandate to maximize revenues and reduces the educational opportunities available to Florida families.”

It’s an issue also raised by lottery industry officials around the nation, who are watching the development closely.

“I am concerned that devoting 10 percent of ticket and advertising real estate to this warning message would have a substantial negative impact on Lottery game retail sales and a corresponding negative impact on profits and funding for education programs these sales support,” David Gale, executive director of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries said in a letter to DeSantis last month, asking him to veto the bill.

But the reduction in education funding could have been much greater under a House plan to include a more elaborate warning on Lottery tickets. It would have said: “WARNING: PLAYING A LOTTERY GAME CONSTITUTES GAMBLING AND MAY LEAD TO ADDICTION AND/OR COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR. THE CHANCES OF WINNING A BIG PRIZE ARE VERY LOW.”

The Florida Senate prevailed in the final version of the bill with the more reserved warning about gambling addiction or asking ticket buyers to “play responsibly.”

Florida Senate Budget Chairman Rob Bradley, a Clay County Republican who handled the bill on the Senate floor, said the warning message was a way for the state to let Floridians know “this is not gambling-lite.”

“This is a game of chance where you probably aren’t going to win. And because the way the brain works, you can become addicted to this, like any other form of gaming. And I think that’s appropriate for people to understand that,” he said.

The warning and its deterrent effect on ticket sales could have a positive impact on some Floridians who may be buying more tickets than they can afford.

John Sowinski, head of the long-time anti-gambling advocacy group No Casinos, is calling on DeSantis to sign the Lottery bill because of what he calls the “regressive and addictive” nature of the games.

“The fact is that gambling enterprises, including lotteries, rely on addicts who spend a high volume of money for a large portion of their profits. That they would object to a simple, truthful warning label is obnoxious,” Sowinski wrote last month.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.