You can still buy lottery tickets, you just can’t win — for now

Courtland Milloy
Columnist October 15, 2013

The sign at the mini-mart in Southeast Washington was the last straw: “Due to the federal government shutdown,” it read, “the D.C. Lottery has suspended the redemption of winning D.C. Lottery tickets until further notice.” You can still buy lottery tickets, the sign said. You just can’t collect your winnings until Congress votes to reopen the government.

Put it another way, say you win that $160 million-plus Powerball drawing Wednesday on a ticket bought in the District. If the federal government still hasn’t opened, you’ll just have to dream on until it does. Or, say those tea party Republicans make good on their threat to take the country over a fiscal cliff Thursday.

You just might have to leave that golden parachute behind.

“If the winner of the Powerball jackpot is from D.C., I’m hoping that we can pay that winner,” said Buddy Roogow, executive director of the D.C. Lottery. “But I don’t know if we can pay until the shutdown ends. Right now, it’s kind of uncharted territory.”

Ditto for the $29 million Mega Million prize drawing Tuesday.

Let’s recap the insanity: Congress furloughs hundreds of thousands of federal employees. It curtails public services, spreading pain far and wide. And just when everyday folk could use a cheap thrill to help ease the blues, D.C. officials conclude that paying lottery winners is prohibited during a government shutdown.

“Everybody is upset about that,” said K.B. Embaye, who operates the MLK Mini Mart in Southeast Washington. “Five people wanted to cash in their scratch tickets today, but I couldn’t do it because the lottery machines are shut down.”

Asked what kind of words customers used to convey their dismay, Embaye just shook his head and murmured, “Oh, man.”

The D.C. Lottery Web site’s “Frequently Asked Questions” section notes that lottery payouts were halted Friday, nearly two weeks into the shutdown. That amounts to about $400,000 a day from 500 stores that is being withheld from winners, lottery officials said.

Little wonder that lottery ticket sales are down by about $1 million since Friday, compared with the same time a week before.

For players wondering what the shutdown has to do with not getting their winnings, the answer is less than satisfying. Because the District is considered an agency of the federal government, no appropriations can be made without Congress’s approval. And during the shutdown, Congress appears unable to approve anything.

Never mind that the $250 million that the District takes in from lottery sales each year comes solely from the players. Not a cent of it is taxpayers’ money.

About half of the District’s lottery sales are to Maryland residents who commute to work in the District — a disproportionately large number of whom are government employees who have been furloughed.

“The shutdown has been very bad not just for the lottery sales but business in general,” said Emmanuel Tesfay, whose Circle 7 Express mart is along a major commuter route in Southeast. “I’ve been here for 30 years, and I’ve never seen the store this empty.”

Surely such a costly disruption could have been avoided. Even without Congress’s authorization, the payouts could have been made under the District’s “essential service” exemption. Consider: Essential government services are those that protect the health and safety of the public. Out of the $250 million in annual lottery sales, the city gets to keep $70 million — all of which goes to support services such as police, fire, health and education.

What could be more essential than that?

“People are still coming into play,” Tesfay said. “They don’t like what’s happening, but what can they do? Some of them even see the government shutdown as a sign of good luck.”

I guess that makes about as much sense as players forking over $17 for a copy of “Zolar’s Book of Dreams, Numbers & Lucky Days.”

During my chat with Embaye, a customer came in and sighed with disappointment after reading the sign about the delay in lottery payouts.

Another sign also caught his eye: “If you think you or someone you know may have a gambling problem, call the toll-free Problem Gambling help line.”

“Oh, yeah, I have a gambling problem,” the customer said, holding up a winning Pick 3 scratch ticket. “Somebody owes me $80.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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