AUGUSTA — The Maine State Lottery, which is 20 years old this week, is one part of Maine state government that works even better than anticipated.
“Everyone has a dream of someday striking it rich,” said Sen. Richard J. “Spike” Carey, D-Waterville, who was director of the Maine State Lottery from 1979 to 1985. “People who don’t have enough money for stocks and bonds do this. It’s just the dream. It’s the middle- to lower-income stock market.”
From a revenue-producing standpoint, the state lottery routinely exceeds its goals and has grown phenomenally since the first lottery drawing on June 27, 1974. It has turned over more than $290 million to the General Fund since 1974.
In 20 years, the Maine State Lottery’s contribution to the state treasury has grown more than 40 times larger than at its inception.
In its first full year of operation in 1975, lottery ticket sales totaled $5.1 million and the lottery turned over $1.1 million to the General Fund for support of schools and general government.
This fiscal year, ending June 30, lottery sales are expected to top $146 million and General Fund contributions will top $46 million.
“The Maine State Lottery is one of the most successful lotteries in the country,” said David Campbell, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. “We are one of the highest per-capita sales states, especially on the instant tickets. Our growth is so far ahead of New Hampshire’s and Vermont’s.”
New Hampshire had the first lottery in the country and this year will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Thirty-five of the 50 states now have their own lotteries and many participate in multistate regional lotteries such as Tri-State Megabucks.
Many states had emotional legislative debates before approving lotteries.
In Maine, Rep. Arthur Genest, D-Waterville, sponsored the lottery bill which won approval in March 1973. In November 1973, Maine voters were asked if they wanted to establish a lottery.
The answer was a resounding “yes” as 154,911 voters favored the lottery and 90,433 opposed it.
On June 27, 1974, in Augusta’s Capitol Park, Gov. Kenneth M. Curtis, who was in the last of eight years as governor, supervised the first lottery drawing. It featured large numbered rubber balls mixed up and then drawn from a “gumball machine.”
Tickets then cost 50 cents apiece. The first winner was Ivan Lazure, a Lewiston mechanic who won $20.
Genest now looks back with pride on the lottery he helped launch.
“My own personal projection was $5 million for the General Fund,” said Genest. “The opposition mostly was from the Christian Civic League. They thought it was immoral.
“Most Republicans opposed it, but there were enough Republicans who joined Democrats (then in the minority) to pass it. I would label it an outstanding success, far in excess of what I envisioned.”
Lottery sales progressed nicely through 1985, when General Fund contributions were $4.4 million.
But a major breakthrough occurred when Maine joined Tri-State Megabucks with New Hampshire and Vermont in 1985. With much larger jackpots, ticket sales also took off.
In fiscal 1986, the General Fund contribution was $11.8 million; in 1987, it was $18.2 million.
In the last 20 years, total ticket sales by the Maine State Lottery are getting very close to $1 billion at $950 million. The lottery has paid out $495 million in prizes and $66 million in agent commissions.
The first Maine winner of Megabucks was Richard Campbell of South Portland, who won $935,919 on Sept. 14, 1985, the very first Megabucks drawing.
Since then, 116 Maine players have won about half of the Megabucks jackpots; Maine players also buy about half the Megabucks tickets.
“When the jackpot gets up around $4 (million) to $5 million, that’s when interest picks up,” said Campbell. “Go higher than that and it really goes crazy.”
The largest winner in Megabucks was Lisa Taber of Winthrop, who claimed $9.16 million on July 1, 1992. The money is paid in installments over 20 years.
The odds of winning Megabucks are 1 in 3.8 million, while the odds on some instant games with small prizes can be as low as 1 in 4.
A recent mystery is who will claim a $6.4 million winning Megabucks ticket that was sold at Bartlett’s Market in Stonington. The winning ticket was drawn May 18 and still no one has claimed it.
Campbell noted that winners have up to a year from the date of a drawing to claim their prize.
“People often don’t come forward immediately,” he said.
In a cost-cutting move, the Legislature in 1992 merged the Maine State Lottery with the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages. The logic behind the move was that lottery and liquor sales are the only agencies in state government whose primary role is to generate money by selling things.
“Liquor and lottery are enterprise operations,” said Campbell. “They’ll generate $68 million this year and when combined, they are the third-largest revenue-producer for the state.”
About 1,600 stores in Maine sell lottery tickets.
Despite the interest in Megabucks, for the last few years it has been the instant, scratch-and-win games that have generated the most ticket sales. The lottery runs from 10 to 13 instant games on a rotating basis.
A recent hit has been instant Bingo, which costs $2 to play, and offers multiple ways to win. The top prize is $10,000.
“We’ve tried to introduce more games and keep them excited,” said Campbell.