When it snows he plows and when it floods he ferries sandbags. In between
the blizzards and rainstorms, he spreads gravel, digs holes and levels
out roads. For Gene Rosholt, owner of Rosholt's Gravel and Excavating,
it's been a steady living in a small town and over the years it's provided
a comfortable income for him, his wife and his four children.
But like most, Rosholt holds hope for something a little better, for a
bit more money to level out the bumps in his own life. He dares hope for
the jackpot that would allow him to consider, on any given day, whether
he really even wants to put on his work clothes and fire up the front-end
loader. And so, in mid-August last year, Rosholt drove from his home in
Buxton, N.D., to Climax, Minn.as he often has beforeand bought
a Powerball ticket.
This story doesn't end in immeasurable riches for the North Dakotan and
his kin. "I didn't actually win the Powerball," he pointed out.
But Rosholt did win $100,000, and a few months later, he decided to share
that pleasure with his fellow North Dakotansalbeit indirectlyby
voting for a constitutional amendment to allow state residents to purchase
lottery tickets within the state's borders.
The November 2002 vote was the fourth attempt in recent years to bring
a lottery to North Dakota, one of the nation's few remaining states without
one. And the key argument used by lottery advocates this time around was
that the game could bring the state millions in tax revenue, rather than
sending it to neighboring states.
After all, said lottery advocates, thousands of North Dakotans just like
Rosholt drive over state borders to buy their lottery tickets in Minnesota
or South Dakota. (Four of Minnesota's top five Powerball and state lottery
retailers are in East Grand Forks and Moorhead.) But unlike Rosholt, few
of them bring home more than they spend "abroad," and lottery
proponents reasoned that the state should capture those revenues. "Given
the state's overall financial situation," said Pat Crotty of the
pro-lottery group, "we felt a case could be made that money should
Apparently, their argument was persuasive. The ballot measure passed solidly,
with nearly two-thirds voting in favor. And Rosholt himself is convinced
that the lottery will benefit the state. "I'm hoping that it'll bring
more revenue into North Dakota for education and stuff like that,"
The cross-border revenue pressure that convinced North Dakotans to give
themselves a lottery has spread lotteries across the country like a rippling
wave ever since New Hampshire began its first in 1964. But as lotteries
have proliferated, the state governments that oversee them have found
themselves heavily promoting products that haven't actually provided the
payoff that most legislatorsand the publicexpected. A close
analysis shows that traditional lotteriesscratch-off tickets and
lotto games like Powerballgenerate surprisingly little tax revenue
for Ninth District states.
But these traditional lotteries aren't the only game in town. State governments
in the Ninth District also authorize and heavily tax other types of gambling
such as pulltabs and video gambling devices available at local stores
and neighborhood bars. As it turns out, these are often far bigger moneymakers
for state governments than the heavily touted state lotteries.
Despite all the publicity that surrounds them, all the advertising,
controversy and justificationsthis money helps to: (pick one) reduce
property taxes, fund education, preserve nature, treat problem gamblersthe
fact is, traditional lotteries raise very little tax revenue. Data show
that's true nationally, but in the Ninth District, it's even more the
In Montana, for example, lottery sales brought in tax revenue of about
$6.6 million in 2000, just 0.19 percent of the state's general revenue
(or 0.29 percent of own-source general revenue), which amounted to about
$7.30 per person. Other district state lotteries were slightly more lucrative,
but none approached the national average of about 1.2 percent. In Minnesota,
lottery proceeds available to the state after prize payouts, administrative
costs and vendor commissions amounted to $57.3 million in 2000, just 0.27
percent of the state's $21 billion general fund that year. Wisconsin's
lottery, the highest revenue producer in the district relative to its
state budget, provided 0.54 percent of the state's general revenue, and
provided just $76 in property tax relief to the average household in 2002.
"People thought it would generate huge property tax reductions,"
said Wisconsin state Sen. Robert Cowles. "But it's really a minimal
Moreover, state lotteries are providing less revenue growth as time goes
on, barely keeping up with inflation. Though they're monopolies, they
face increased competition for consumer gambling dollars, from lotteries
in other states and from other types of gambling. Most states have responded
by raising payout rates (the percentage of gross sales that are paid back
in prizes) to boost ticket purchases, but sales have been stalling nonetheless.
In Minnesota, for example, gross sales in fiscal year 2002 were virtually
unchanged from those in fiscal year 1996.
Like any business faced with stagnant profits from current product lines,
states have sought out revenue from other gambling sources. In Wisconsin,
the government is ratcheting up pressure on Indian casinos, but other
district states have either developed new state lottery products and promoted
them aggressively, or given government approval to privately owned forms
of gambling and then taxed them heavily.
Minnesota, for example, relies on pulltabs. In 2000, the state collected
over $58 million in pulltab tax revenue, more than the lottery brought
in that year despite having its best sales year in history. The picture
is more dramatic in South Dakota, where traditional lottery products,
scratch-off tickets and various lotto games including Powerball, raised
only $6.5 million in government revenue in fiscal year 2002. The real
jackpot for the state was video lottery, which raised nearly $103 million
in tax revenue, making it South Dakota's second largest revenue source
after the general sales tax.
Montana licenses over 18,000 video gambling machines around the statetwice
as many per capita as South Dakotaand collects permit fees and 15
percent of gross machine revenue. In 2000, that amounted to over $44 million,
seven times the total brought in by the state lottery. VGM revenue and
the taxes levied on it have climbed every year since the machines were
first permitted in 1990. Until recently, these permit and tax revenues
were collected by the state but then returned to cities and municipalities
in direct proportion to gambling expenditure in their area.
Montana has come to depend on those gambling taxes. "Cities and towns
are particularly dependent," noted a 1998 governor's commission on
gambling, which said that VGM tax distributions accounted for almost 14
percent of city/town total general fund appropriations, on average, in
fiscal year 1997, with some towns pulling nearly 40 percent of their budgets
from gambling machines. Helena's Independent Record ran a series
of stories on government reliance on VGM revenues under the headline,
Montana tax law changed in 2001; now after VGM revenue goes into the state
general fund, it's disbursed to municipalities according to a negotiated
formula rather than in direct proportion to local gambling expenditure.
Still, it constitutes a major source of state, county and local funding,
even if it's not a dollar-for-dollar pass-through to the city that generated
the revenue. And some say that's a problem. Chuck Tooley, the mayor of
Billings, Mont., said that prior to the 2001 revenue distribution change,
gambling taxes represented about 16 percent of his city's general fund
revenues. "We only have 125 uniformed, sworn police officers in the
City of Billings police force," he said. "You take away gambling
revenue and it equals the salaries of probably about 80 to 100 of them.
See the problem?" There's less linkage now, but gambling revenues
are still, in the words of another Billings city official, "a life
Still hoping for the lottery payoff
Back in North Dakota, the people have spoken for a different type of
gambling: A lottery is on its way. A legislative commission is now studying
which multistate lottery to join and debating the minimum gambling age.
Lawmakers also are considering how much money to devote to treatment for
problem gamblers and whether to dedicate revenue to K-12 education or
Rosholt himself is looking forward to his state's new lottery, in part
because he'll no longer have to drive to Minnesota for Powerball tickets.
"If you can buy them in North Dakota," he said, "I'll buy
them in North Dakota." And like lottery supporters everywhere, he's
pretty convinced that the lottery will pay off for him even if he never
buys another ticket. He's got one granddaughter and another is on the
way. "So I guess that's where I look at," he explained. "If
it's going to help the education system, why, somewhere down the road,
it's hopefully going to help my grandkids."