As luck would have it, your chances of winning the New Jersey Lottery are not as infinitesimal as the odds suggest. They're worse.
The Asbury Park Press reported this week that a disproportionate share of lottery winnings are accruing to the owners of convenience stores - a group not necessarily known for their remarkable fortune. More likely, the findings suggest that lottery ticket sellers have discovered ways to game the system.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, state officials announced last week that lottery revenues have fallen by nearly a quarter over last fiscal year, presaging more bad karma for an incoming administration already facing a multibillion-dollar deficit. New Jersey's lottery revenues are also off in spite of efforts to increase them through private management.
In the era of the corner casino, as politicians from South Philly to North Jersey rush to make slot machines and blackjack the latest neighborhood amenities, lotteries are the dial-up modems of state-sponsored gambling. But as these developments illustrate, gambling at every level remains an unreliable source of state revenue as well as a dubious cause for government promotion.
The Press' review found that over the past five years, 10 of the New Jersey Lottery's 20 most frequent winners, and five of the top six, were licensed lottery retailers or their relatives. This charmed group collected a total of more than 800 prizes worth nearly $1.8 million during that period.
Barring the emergence of a particularly effective rabbit's foot, the most probable culprit is an illicit practice called "discounting," in which retailers claim customers' prizes for them in exchange for a hefty cut of the winnings (on top of their commissions for selling tickets). Players might agree to such a deal if they have overdue child support or other liabilities for which any official winnings would be garnished.
A lottery expert told the newspaper that the pattern it uncovered is practically impossible as a matter of chance. Nor is it limited to New Jersey: Several other states have found that their lottery retailers claim an unlikely share of prizes.
The risk of cheating isn't lotteries' only vulnerability. Pennsylvania's outgoing budget secretary has warned of a 23 percent drop in revenues from some games in the first half of the fiscal year, blaming a lack of big jackpots that draw more players. In an attempt to boost revenues, the legislature this year passed a measure to increase sales of scratch-off tickets. Gov. Corbett's bid to pump up profits further through private management and more gambling opportunities was blocked by Attorney General Kathleen Kane last year.
At the same time, New Jersey went ahead with a similarly questionable lottery privatization. But Gov. Christie has already allowed the operator, an avid political contributor, to reduce its revenue target. In the most recent quarter, the state's lottery income was down 9 percent from the same period last year.