ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Armed with sales statistics tailored for each legislative district, the Minnesota Lottery chief is paying visits to lawmakers as he attempts to repair strained relationships and head off another showdown over tickets sold on the Internet, through automated cash-machines and at gas station pumps.
Lottery Executive Director Ed Van Petten acknowledges he “kind of opened my mouth too much” last session amid a fight to protect a new slate of games from a bipartisan push to scrap them, a skirmish he won thanks to Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto of a bill passed overwhelmingly. Key lawmakers say they will again try to pull the plug on virtual ticket sales, contending it makes gambling too easy and stretches the lottery’s voter-authorized power.
As the lottery marks its 25th anniversary, Van Petten said it needs to keep evolving to remain vibrant while also stressing the hundreds of millions of dollars steered annually into the state treasury and environmental programs. And that, he argues, means recognizing that new platforms are essential to reaching the next generation of players.
“We need to educate better,” Van Petten said of his pre-session conversations with legislators. “There were a lot of allegations last year about the sale of games over the Internet being disastrous or detrimental. None of those dire consequences has happened.”
At issue are instant-play “scratch-off” games introduced last February and subscription draw-game sales available electronically before that. Minnesota was the first state with e-scratch games, where customers can buy up to $50 in tickets per week as long as they are located within the state and prove they are an adult.
So far, lottery officials say more than 31,000 players have purchased tickets through the Internet service, with an average age of 44 years old. About 27 percent of the players are younger than 35, the audience lottery officials have had the most difficulty connecting with in recent years.
The vetoed legislation also would have shut down “play at the pump” terminals at about 50 gas stations. Lawmakers and others worried it would eat into store sales at some of the 3,100 lottery retailers.
Lottery officials have been tracking sales in gas stations to determine whether those with game terminals at pumps are seeing any inside-the-store effects. Van Petten said early indications are that counter ticket sales have modestly increased, which is important because those retailers get a higher commission than for sales at pumps.
Such statistics may not quiet lottery critics. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said it’s having the opposite effect on him.
“That just reinforced my opposition. Gambling should be a destination sport. The lottery director wants to make it a more impulsive sport,” Bakk said. “I am not interested in gambling being at someone’s fingertips every minute of the day.”
Still, Van Petten has concentrated on mending fences — something Dayton urged him to do after the last debate soured relations between the lottery and the Legislature. Some lawmakers were upset the lottery launched the games without getting explicit sign-off first. Van Petten insisted that wasn’t necessary.
As Van Petten makes his rounds, he’s often accompanied by his new lobbyist, Chris Kwapick, who has strong Capitol ties after serving as the top staffer on the House Commerce Committee.
Rep. Joe Atkins, who gives up the Commerce Committee gavel in January, had a meeting last week with Van Petten and senses a different tone.
“The message last year was delivered loudly and clearly” with last session’s vote,” said Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. “They’ve been communicating much better. They’ve shared with us what they’re doing and what they’re planning to do.”
Lottery leaders hope more defenders emerge, particularly environmental groups that have benefited from dollars plowed into a special trust fund.
Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, said it’s tricky. His group recently received a $276,000 habitat-restoration grant from the lottery-fed account, but the gambling debate isn’t natural territory for organizations like his.
“It’s not core to our mission in terms of thinking about those social policy things,” Clark said. “Obviously there is a connection to the trust fund. I am not ruling out us taking a position.”
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