City Watch: Pay The Lottery Winners — And Pay Them Now

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“Excitement and joy turned to anger and frustration Wednesday as dozens of people expecting to collect their lottery winnings instead left the South Carolina Education Lottery offices empty handed.” — The State, Dec. 27

By the way, that was Wednesday three weeks ago. The South Carolina Education Lottery has yet to pay off those winners and many others like them who bought tickets for a certain lottery game on Dec. 25, only to have the Government Grinch that Stole Christmas deny them their prize.

It seems the SCEL is still investigating why too many people were winning the game during a two-hour period on Christmas Day. Yes, the Lottery knows how many people are supposed to win a game like this one, as the results are programmed in.

Indeed, the SCEL announced the problem was a “programming error” by its computer vendor, Intralot.

So we know two things: (1) it wasn’t the winning lottery players’ fault they won; (2) the Lottery is losing credibility and breaking faith with the public every day it continues not to pay those winners.

Personally, I have never bought a lottery ticket and never will, as I think the so-called “Education Lottery” is horrendous public policy (more on that later).

But I also think the state should pay the winners. And pay them without delay, unless criminal activity is suspected. That is not the case here, at least according to the SCEL.

The winning tickets carry a prize of $500, and apparently enough were sold to generate $19.6 million in winnings (that is the amount the SCEL announced it has set aside in case it eventually decides to pay off the winners).

Of course, they should have already done so — not just as a matter of morality and honorable governance, but also as a matter of self-protection and legal strategy.

Should the SCEL announce it is not going to pay the winners, how long do you think it would take for plaintiff’s lawyers to file a class action suit on their behalf seeking not only the $19.6 million in actual damages but tens of millions more in punitive damages? And more power to them in this case.

None of this is to say the SCEL should gladly take that $20 million hit. If in fact Intralot made the “programming error” the SCEL says it did, the state should demand restitution from Intralot and sue to get it if the vendor refuses to pay.

After all, the Lottery is always short on money for those college scholarships it is supposed to provide: From City Watch, Dec. 3, 2014:

“South Carolina taxpayers increasingly are paying the tab for scholarships given to the state’s college students. Those scholarships were sold to the public as being paid for by profits from the state’s lottery. However, the lottery never has paid the full cost of the scholarships, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference.” — The State

“Imagine that,” I wrote at the time. “And the tab just keeps going up. So much for that ‘voluntary tax’ lottery backers promised us back in 2000. Whether you play the lottery or not, you are being forced to pay to fulfill its promises.”

But beyond the bait-and-switch fiscal trap that the lottery has been for taxpayers, it is the Robin Hood in reverse nature of it that bothers me more. And not just me. Here’s what someone else had to say:

“One of the concerns I have is a disproportionate number of people who consistently buy lottery tickets tend to be lower income and working class people who can least afford it. Even if they’re not compulsive gamblers, they are probably spending money they don’t necessarily have.

“I think the fact that the state systematically targets what we know to be lower income persons as a way of raising revenue is troublesome. I would argue that if you look at it as a whole, in most states this tends to be a form of regressive taxation.”

So who do you think said that? A conservative politician? A Southern Baptist preacher?

It was Barack Obama. Spoken in 2000 when he was an Illinois state senator. Well said, sir.

But all of that is about having a lottery, not paying the winners if you do. The SCEL should pay its Christmas Day winners, and it should do so today.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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