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Georgia Bill Would Allow Online Lottery Ticket Sales

March 05, 2004|Rennie Sloan | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Georgia legislators Thursday approved a House bill that would allow residents to buy lottery tickets online -- legislation that, if it becomes law, would make Georgia the first state with an Internet lottery.

Backers of the legislation said it would make it easier for white-collar workers to play and thus increase the revenue that funds the state's popular but costly college scholarship program.

Critics said it would make it too easy for lottery players -- especially the many who are on limited incomes -- to get in over their heads.

Among the provisions of the bill is one that would allow purchase by credit card.

Although the bill easily passed the Georgia House, a number of unresolved issues could stall it in the Senate. The most basic is whether an Internet lottery is legal; others include whether out-of-state purchases would be allowed and how to prohibit sales to minors.

Other states have started online initiatives and will watch closely to see how an Internet lottery plays out in Georgia, said David Gale, executive director of the North American Assn. of State and Provincial Lotteries.

The Georgia bill also authorizes the use of credit and debit cards for ticket purchases in retail establishments. Currently sales are restricted to cash. Players who used credit cards would be limited to $5 worth of purchases a day -- though critics argue that it would be easy to spend more.

The online lottery would require customers to set up a "Georgia Peach Account," similar to an online checking or brokerage account, according to Rep. Terry Barnard (R-Glennville), the bill's author.

It would be "a way to maybe attract what I consider the techies or the business people who sit around in front of their computers all day long but may not have the opportunity to play the lottery otherwise," Barnard said.

The lawmaker said he hoped online sales would boost revenues for the HOPE Scholarship, the state's nationally recognized program for helping students who have good grades pay for continuing education. The program is funded by the lottery, which began in 1993.

Current revenue projections are not expected to cover the rising costs of the scholarship, a cause of vigorous debate among Georgia politicians, who disagree on how to save the program.

Gambling opponents said online lottery tickets were another disaster for poor Georgians already burdened with funding the scholarship program.

"The greater majority of lottery tickets are bought by people of the lower income and the lower education level which tend to be the poor people. These are economically vulnerable people," said Willis H. Moore, executive director of the Georgia Council on Moral and Civic Concerns, a group funded by state Baptist and Methodist organizations.

"The people who are using credit cards or will use credit cards to buy that elusive dream of the lottery, it just makes them more vulnerable," he said.

"Even though they say it's only $5 a day, it could be $35 a week, and for someone that is already laboring under credit card debt this just adds to their burden," he said. Moore sees online sales as another way to take money from people who do not realize how poor the chances of winning are.

"It's really premature of us to comment on what kind of impact this bill would have," said J.B. Landroche, Georgia Lottery Corp. communications director, who said the bill merely authorizes the state to move forward to explore the possibility of an online lottery.

Gale, the lottery industry group director, said that even if Georgia failed to enact this legislation, Internet lotteries would inevitably be looked at as a revenue source for programs and services.

"It is representative of future buying habits," he said.

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