S.C. lottery sales pull a surprise

Economic bad times are everywhere in South Carolina, but you wouldn't know it by soaring lottery-ticket sales. January to June, the state-run games raked in 3percent more cash statewide than in the same period last year.

That's surprising, lottery officials say, given the state's record-high gas prices, rising food costs, depressed real estate values and shaky job market.

Officials had fretted about whether the games would make their goal.

When the lottery closes its books on the fiscal year later this month, Ernie Passailaigue, executive director of the S.C. Education Lottery, said he expects more than $266 million in lottery profits to be transferred to the education account, on preliminary gross sales figures of $992 million.

That will exceed the state's $252.4 million goal for the year by about $14 million.

Lottery officials announced this week that South Carolina has crossed the $2billion mark in contributions to education funding, highlighting how integral lottery proceeds have become in financing college scholarships.

Since its controversial inception in 2002, the S.C. lottery has raked in more than $6 billion in ticket sales.

“The last six months (have) been a lot more dynamic and positive than the first six months (of the 2007-2008 fiscal year) to help us actually make this the second-highest gross sales ever in South Carolina lottery history,” Passailaigue said. “We're very happy about that.”

Lottery worries

The state lottery's good fortune wasn't certain, Passailaigue said. At the end of December, midway through the fiscal year, Passailaigue said lottery coffers were less than $500,000 beyond the break-even point.

At that same time, drivers in the Southeast were paying an average of $3.09 a gallon for gasoline. “That is odd,” Passailaigue said, searching for an explanation for the games' good fortunes.

He credited the type of games the lottery offers, specifically noting Harley-Davidson and NASCAR games.

Passailaigue said lottery sales have slipped in some S.C. counties, particularly border counties next to the North Carolina and Georgia state lines and some of the poorest counties, including Sumter, Marlboro, Allendale and Hampton.

S.C. officials offer a variety of reasons for their gains.

“You have had two major winners in South Carolina recently, in Lexington County; and, secondly, in a sagging economy, people are willing to take higher risks because of higher needs,” said Rep. John Scott, D-Richland, a member of the Lottery Oversight Committee.

Some lottery critics think poor people, especially during down economic times, are getting a raw deal.

“It's lousy public policy that preys on the poor,” said lottery opponent John Rainey, chairman of the Board of Economic Advisers, which reviews lottery figures to help the state make economic projections for the budget.

“It's a dollar for hope,” Rainey said. “It's trying to buy an escape. It's a wealth transfer in the wrong direction.”