Number Crunched

Self-Appointed lottery watchdog Dawn Nettles keeps her eye on the balls-and has some, too.

The Bible doesn't leave much wiggle room on the lottery, but Howard recognizes that the Legislature has to render unto Caesar as well. "Now we have the lottery, and what I'm trying to do is stop the expansion of gambling," Howard says. "Getting rid of the lottery is a much higher hill to climb."

Sales figures show that on-line games, as the traditional number-picking lottery games are called, are stagnating. Lotto Texas sales peaked in fiscal year 1995 at nearly $1.2 billion but have declined steadily to $477 million last year. The move to 54 balls provided only a fleeting boost. In 2002, the commission lengthened the odds against winning even further, to one-in-47.8 million, in the hopes of larger jackpots. Before the change, Nettles again testified before the commission, armed with a thick sheaf of printed e-mails from her readers critical of the proposal. It again passed unanimously. "One has a better chance being crowned King of Texas than he does winning the lottery," Nettles wrote in disgust on her Web site.

Overall lottery revenues inched up last year, but even that isn't completely good news. A growing percentage of that money is coming from scratch-off tickets, a fact that is troubling for both camps: Instant games are the most addictive form of lottery, and they are also less profitable than on-line games.

Dawn Nettles regularly visits lottery retailers around the metroplex.
Dawn Nettles regularly visits lottery retailers around the metroplex.
Eighteen-hour days aren't unusual for Nettles at the office she keeps in her Garland home.
Eighteen-hour days aren't unusual for Nettles at the office she keeps in her Garland home.

Yet the call of lottery money in a cash-strapped state with a tax-averse Legislature is all but irresistible, especially under the banner of education. The connection is, in a sense, illusory: Lottery money that goes to education replaces money from the general fund that can then be used elsewhere. The education card, however, is powerful when it's played.

"A child is drowning, and we have it in our power to throw them a rope," says Representative Sylvester Turner of Houston. "Let's not allow the children to drown." Turner is in favor of allowing lottery ticket sales on the Internet, and argued his case on the House floor earlier this month. "Two hundred million dollars. Two hundred million dollars. Two hundred million dollars!" Turner repeats an estimate of Internet sales revenue like a mantra.

"My friend Mr. Turner says we are going to save a drowning child with this amendment," counters Representative Bill Zedler of Arlington. "Well, my friends, with gambling, we are not throwing that child a lifesaver; we are throwing him an anchor."

Later the same day, Nettles talks about one of her concerns, the possible replacement of mechanical drawings with computer-generated numbers. Her rhetoric doesn't soar quite as high, but the sentiment is no less heartfelt.

"I would give my right arm if the state could incorporate into the legislation that the Texas Lottery could not ever go to computerized draws," she says.

Nettles has good reason to be worried. In May, 650 players of California's Derby lottery game had their odds of winning reduced to zero by a glitch in the computerized draw software. Even so, her fixation on such esoteric issues leaves her anti-gambling credentials in doubt, which may explain why Nettles has yet to make common cause with the lottery's most prominent opponents in the Legislature. Instead, she piques the interest of legislators by highlighting the possibility of lost revenues for the state.

"The members rely on people like Dawn," says David Parnell, counsel for state Representative Richard Raymond of Laredo. "We can't know everything."

Her efforts result in a steady trickle of letters to the commission from legislators not involved in lottery oversight. Most of the letters end up on Nettles' Web site.

"I don't think there's a legislator or a senator or a governor that doesn't know who I am," Nettles says proudly. "When it's Nettles coming, they know who I am."

On May 4, the House Committee for Licensing and Administrative Procedures meets to discuss, among other things, the Sunset Bill reauthorizing the lottery for another 12 years. As Nettles steps up to the podium to testify, Chairman Keno Flores of McAllen looks down at her over the top of his reading glasses.

"You've written here that you're neutral on this bill?" he asks. A few chuckles sound in the room--most of the lottery high command is present, including Executive Director Greer.

The committee clerk, Milda Mora, has heard from Nettles many times before. "I think there's some valid things that she brings over," she says later. "It's just that there may be a little overkill." Tonight, Nettles' testimony will touch on computerized draws, cheated winners, rules changes, even the intimidation of Web site owners whose domain names resemble the lottery's.

After Nettles has spoken for about 20 minutes, Flores interrupts.

"Are you still neutral on the bill?" he asks dryly. Many of the legislators on the committee have begun to fidget. Some get up and leave during her speech. Others converse among themselves.

"Dawn kind of tends to get off the subject and ramble a little bit," says Gerald Busald, a math professor at San Antonio College. "It's hard. You're under a lot of pressure when you're up there testifying." Busald has plenty of experience testifying himself. He and his students confronted the commission in 1997 with proof that the figure for the average prize in its Cash 5 game, touted in ads for the game, was too high. The commission changed the ads, stressing the sheer number of winners instead--until Busald and his class pointed out that that number was too high as well.

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