Lottery: Devil's spawn or path to higher education?

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   Any given day of the week one is likely to see drivers from Upper East Tennessee and North Carolina crossing the border into the Commonwealth of Virginia to buy lottery tickets. Tuesday was no exception.
   Young and old streamed into the Appco station just inside Bristol, Va., to get tickets for Tuesday's Big Game. Though the sign outside the convenience store said the payout was $153 million, by 1:30 p.m. the jackpot had hit $155 million and was sure to increase before the 11 p.m. drawing, based on the number of ticket sales.
   Besides Virginia, seven other states bordering Tennessee offer some form of legalized gambling. Only Tennessee, Utah and Hawaii do not, but that could change in November when voters from the Volunteer State go to the polls to voice their opinion on lifting a constitutional ban on lotteries.
   Getting a lottery in Tennessee is not a sure bet by any means. While Gov. Don Sundquist came out in favor of the people's right to vote on a lottery in February 1999, Tennessee Baptist Convention began raising money last year to support an anti-lottery campaign which is expected to gain momentum this summer prior to November's vote.
   But barring closure of state borders, Tennesseans and North Carolinians who play the lottery will continue to wager whether the state passes a referendum or not.
   One middle-age woman from Tennessee who was at the Bristol Appco said that if people are going to spend money on the lottery, "They'll come across the line and spend it in Virginia, just like I'm doing."
   She used a coin to tear away at the coating on a Scratcher to see whether it revealed merchandise or cash prizes.
   "I have played the same numbers since the lottery started (in 1990). I keep playing the same ones, thinking sooner or later it's going to hit. ... It's missed me so far. The most that I have won is $150. I spend $42 a week," she said, on the Big Game and others.
   Linda Edwards, supervisor at Appco, said it's difficult to tell percentagewise just how many folks that come to play are from Tennessee. At 1:30 p.m., only one customer's car sported Virginia tags. One patron was from North Carolina, while four or five were from Sullivan and Washington counties in Tennessee. "It usually gets hectic about 5 p.m.," said Edwards, who doesn't play the lottery herself. Many of the customers are "regulars."
   "We get some from North Carolina, all the way from Boone and Spruce Pine." Most plunk down $1 to $5, she said, "unless a bunch of them pool together. I had a man this morning who got $150 worth."
   When the stakes are high, scratch tickets become more popular. "If they're coming in to get a Big Game ticket, they'll pick up a scratch ticket. You can win anywhere from $1 up to the grand prize, ranging from $20,000 to $100,000," Edwards said. "Anything over $600, we can't cash here. It has to go to Abingdon."
   While it's possible to trace which store sold the winning ticket, clerks never know whether they made someone's dream come true unless the customer authorizes the Lottery Commission to release a picture or memo. "That's the only way we know," Edwards said.
   Jackpots increase depending on how many people play the Big Game. "You've got several states in this beside Virginia -- Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia, Virginia and New Jersey," Edwards said. "Regular Lotto is Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia."
   Odds of winning the Big Game jackpot are 1 in 76,275,360 with the overall chance of winning a prize 1 in 30.8. Prizes range from $1 to $150,000. Chances of winning the Lotto South jackpot are 1 in 13,983,816 with an overall 1 in 54 chance of winning an estimated $5 to $1,000.
   In both Big Game and Lotto, winners can choose to take their winnings in one lump-sum of cash, at a loss of about half the estimated advertised jackpot. Or they can choose one payment per year for 30 years while the pool is invested in U.S. Treasury Bonds by the Virginia Lottery. Players can share lottery prizes. If the winner dies, the payments are rolled over to the heirs.
   All winnings are taxable, with federal and state taxes withheld from each prize over $5,000. School divisions in the Commonwealth of Virginia receive approximately 32 percent of all Virginia Lottery ticket sales, with the money used solely for public education.
   Gov. Sundquist said he was impressed with the HOPE scholarship program established in Georgia through lottery funds to help in-state students cover higher education costs. Since its inception in 1993, the Georgia Lottery has raised approximately $5 billion for education, with Tennesseans who run for the border to purchase tickets contributing 5 percent of that amount.
   Under the Hope scholarship, students achieving a B average or better in high school and who maintain that average in college, get full tuition, fees and book allowance at any in-state public or private college or university.
   Georgia also gives, by law, a $200,000 donation per year to a gambling addiction hotline whose callers are mainly persons gambling on sporting events or at casinos.
   Last year, the Tennessee Senate voted 22-13 to send the lottery issue to referendum. A week later it was launched in the House and sailed through, 80-15, thus paving the way for the November lottery referendum.
   "If we had one in Tennessee, it would save the drive," a Washington County player, who is disabled, said Tuesday. She and her husband make the drive once a week to wager $1 on a ticket.
   "If you don't buy a ticket, you don't have a chance," she said.