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Politicians in more than 30 states have discovered that the easy way to raise revenues is to promote legalized gambling in the form of state-sponsored lotteries

Lotteries are big moneymakers. On the average, 38 percent of the money spent on lottery tickets is clear profit to the states.Ticket sales were about $15 billion last year, giving states nearly $6 billion in profits to spend on schools and other worthy causes.

We seem to have found a painless, exciting way for governors and legislators to raise money. No one gets hurt. Everyone has a good time. Why don't we have a national lottery? It's better than raising taxes.

There are several things wrong with this scenario, not the least of which is that buying a lottery ticket is a waste of money. States give back in prizes only half of what they take in. A few players win big. The rest lose money - the longer they play, the more they lose..

Here are some other thoughts to ponder:

- Lotteries are not painless. Betting is heavy among Hispanics, blacks and laborers with low-paying jobs. Go into any roadside store and you'll find the poorest customers buying lottery tickets.

- Lottery profits are essentially flat or declining. Revenues are up because new states enter the game each year. Minnesota, for example, expects to sell 50 million tickets in four or five weeks next spring.

- Churches, especially in the Bible Belt, tend to oppose lotteries. That is why most Southern and some Western states have no lotteries.

- A national lottery, competing with states, would be hard to sell.

Mary Laschober, who conducts lottery research at the University of Illinois, points out that once the novelty wears off, lotteries have a hard time maintaining their revenue base.

"As people become bored with existing games, interest wanes and sales decrease," she says. "New games and aggressive marketing and promotion seem necessary to maintain revenues."

The push for more advertising and more bonus games has prompted soul-searching in Maryland, which raises more than $75 in per capita income from its lottery each year, highest in the nation.

Legislators in Maryland are requiring a notice on each lottery ticket that says: "Compulsive gambling can be treated. If you know someone who has a gambling problem, call Gamblers Anonymous."

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that Maryland has as many as 101,000 "problem gamblers" and another 69,000 who might be considered "pathological gamblers."

Yet the governor is complaining that lottery revenues are down for the first time in 15 years and has told his lottery drumbeaters to find new ways to raise money.

Admittedly, gamblers are more likely to get hooked on horses and slot machines than lottery tickets, but there's something sleazy about states urging their citizens to fritter away money on games of chance.

Saul Leonard, who studies lotteries for Laventhol and Horwath, an accounting firm, argues that lotteries "are the only government operations where revenues determine how much a jurisdiction has to spend, rather than vice versa."

That's a pretty pale reason for picking the pockets of millions of gullible Americans who can least afford to play the game.