Forty-three years ago, as Connecticut officials were gearing up to sell the very first tickets for the state’s newly approved lottery, Gov. Thomas Meskill bullishly declared that residents’ appetite for legalized gambling would put $14 million into state coffers in that first year – a figure editorial writers at the Courant eyed dubiously as “optimistic.”
The paper needn’t have been skeptical. Meskill hit his figure, and in the years since the lottery’s launch on Feb. 15, 1972, ticket sales – and the state’s take of those sales – have skyrocketed.
In fiscal year 2014, lottery sales in Connecticut topped $1 billion for the fourth year in a row. That’s a hair under $400 a year for every Connecticut resident old enough to buy a ticket. Adjusted for both inflation and population, that is a five-fold increase over that first heady year. And with national surveys showing only about half the population plays the lottery, that suggests the average player is spending close to a $1,000 a year on tickets – with heavy players dropping several thousand.
As ticket sales have grown, so has the state’s share of the take, increasing from $14 million the first full year, to $319.5 million in 2014. For the last 20 years, inflation has accounted for much of that growth; since the mid-1990s, ticket sales and state revenue have been generally flat on an inflation-adjusted basis. But overall, the state has sold more than $24.7 billion since the lottery launched, keeping about a third of the money – more than $8 billion – as revenue.
Getting all that controversial cash was a political battle a decade in the making. When State Rep. Tony Miscikoski first drafted a lottery bill in 1961, it was trounced 190-64 in the House. But ten years later, lawmakers had warmed to the idea of millions in non-tax revenues, with four out of five legislators voting for state-sponsored gambling.
When the first lottery tickets were sold 43 years ago Sunday, the launch of legal gambling was a full-on cultural phenomenon. Smaller towns had a single authorized agent selling the 50-cent tickets, and long lines formed around some retailers. One car dealer offered a lottery ticket to anyone taking a test drive, and 51 tickets to anyone buying a car.
The first drawing, nine days later, was held at the Bushnell theater, in a spectacle featuring radio personality Bob Steele dressed all in green, and an actual “money tree” sporting 75 $1,000 bills – representing the top prize. Hundreds of ticket holders filled the seats, with a few racing down the aisles declaring they had won one of the smaller prizes.
State lotteries were so new – Connecticut’s was the sixth authorized – that FCC rules still barred broadcasters from promoting lotteries, leaving local television stations scrambling to determine if they could legally report on the drawing, so long as they didn’t mention the winning numbers. Newspapers faced a problem of their own. Federal law banned mailing newspapers containing ads for lotteries. The Courant and other larger papers published special editions for mail customers with lottery advertisements eliminated, but many smaller papers with single editions were forced to reject the ads.
Players who matched each of five numbers in that first drawing won $5,000 instantly, and news outlets crowded into their living rooms and wrote stories listing every winner.
Clarence Holston of Danbury, now 75, was one of those lucky ticket holders. “It was a very exciting experience and more exciting for my wife than it was for me,” Holston said this week. “It came in very handy at that particular time because we had just bought a house. It helped us out tremendously.”
Holston stills play the lottery weekly, buying either Powerball or Cash5 tickets. Although he says he hasn’t replicated his first-drawing luck, he also figures he’s still in the plus column.
While Holston was and is a lottery fan, there have always been detractors. One legislator who voted against the lottery bemoaned: “We are about to become Reno East.” And Dr. John H. Felber, a local psychiatrist, called the state’s lottery “the worst swindle they can do to people,” saying the state’s take was too large and the odds of winning too small.
Opponents of the lottery persist, pointing to the serious problem of gambling addiction, and in fact millions of dollars in lottery revenue are directed every year to programs for problem gamblers. But with hundreds of millions pouring into state coffers every year, there is likely no cure for politicians’ addiction to the games.