Holiday scratch-offs are no gift to Illinois schools

Holiday scratch-offs are no gift to Illinois schools

Some states promote holiday scratchers as a way to help schools, but in Illinois that claim would land you on the naughty list.

Holiday scratch-off tickets are great stocking stuffers that should come with the moral gift of funding schools, but Illinois’ rampant spending prevents most lottery money from ever reaching classrooms.

When lawmakers first debated the Illinois Lottery in 1973, one key argument made in favor of it was helping fund education. They promised “the state share [of lottery revenues] would be used entirely for public schools,” according to The Associated Press at the time.

They broke that promise from Day 1.

The first 10 years of lottery profits went to the state general revenue fund, paying for many things on top of schools. But in 1985, then-Gov. Jim Thompson signed legislation redirecting lottery money to the Common School Fund, the main source of education funding.

Today, lawmakers boast the lottery “funds education,” and they’re technically right. In Illinois, 25% of lottery proceeds “goes to fund public education, infrastructure projects, and other special causes.”

The details tell a different story. In 2019, WBEZ referred to lottery funds for education as a “shell game.”

Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains the disingenuous nature of lottery funds.

“If the lottery provides $10 to the school fund, state officials have two choices: they can either spend that much more money on schools than their intended $50 dollars, or they can lower the contribution from the general fund by $10. Illinois officials have taken the second approach,” Mooney said.

Basically, lottery profits don’t represent a net increase in spending; they simply free up revenue for lawmakers to spend on other projects.

During the Great Recession, then-Gov. Pat Quinn put together a capital bill costing $31 billion. To pay for it, lawmakers turned to the lottery by putting a cap on how much money could go into the Common School Fund.

Since 2010, the lottery has contributed the same 2009 level to fund schools when adjusted for inflation. Any money above that level pays for other things, such as pensions.

Growing pension costs steer lottery dollars away from schools and drive up property taxes at the same time. Illinois Lottery sales reached $3.4 billion in 2021, of which $762 million will go to the Common School Fund, which pays for the Teachers’ Retirement System.

It’s the best year for Illinois Lottery sales ever, and it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the $5.8 billion in TRS contributions this year.

What are the odds of getting more money to schools without pension reform? About as good as winning big bucks from your holiday scratcher.

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