Rep. Kera Birkeland Says Utah Lottery Has ‘Very Good Chance’ In A Few Years

Just five states in the US don’t have retail lotteries. Among them is Utah.

That doesn’t mean that Utahns aren’t buying lottery tickets, with many flocking to bordering states in order to play popular lottery draw games like Mega Millions and Powerball.

Still, religious motivation stands in the way of the state lifting the prohibition on a lottery.

Rep. Kera Birkeland (R-Morgan) believes the time has come for Utah to change its ways.

She spoke with PlayiLottery on her efforts to get the measure up to a vote for residents:

“My message is the fact that this is 100% voluntary. No one is requiring, or forcing, residents to purchase lottery tickets. It’s a voluntary opportunity that can also help government funding. I’m all in favor of shrinking the size of government. But, instead of growing it on the backs of the taxpayers, we have this money we’re just simply not collecting that can help fund the state.”

Latter-day Saints strongly opposed to a lottery

Utah Representative Kera Birkeland
Rep. Kera Birkeland

Birkeland introduced House Joint Resolution 24 in February. It proposed an amendment to the Utah constitution to lift the ban on lotteries.

In order to make the ballot in Utah, a bill needs two-thirds support in both the House and Senate.

Though the legislation had support in the House, it died in the Senate in March.

“We are considered to be a red state and we are very much in favor of the government dictating moral behavior, I guess,” Birkeland said of the legislation not advancing this year. “Governor Spencer Cox has said that lotteries are just for people who are bad at math. Our Senate President says that the lottery is for a tax on the poor.”

Utah has nearly half of its population being members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church is strongly opposed to gambling and a number of Utah legislators are Latter-day Saints members.

“I think it’s just an attitude and I think a lot of it is due to religion, unfortunately,” Birkeland noted. “(Utah) being prominent with Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, people just believe that (lottery) is just immoral and it will harm communities.”

Alcohol, tobacco sales bring in hundreds of millions for Utah

Utah legislators may be opposed to a lottery, but it hasn’t stopped the state from legalizing other vices like tobacco and alcohol.

That’s one area that Birkeland finds particularly hypocritical:

“I brought up many times in conversations with leadership trying to get the (lottery) bill to move that secondhand smoke actually does kill people, and cigarettes cost more than a lottery ticket does. Alcohol kills people, lotteries never killed anyone. Again, alcohol costs more money than a lottery ticket, and it cost the taxpayers a lot of money.

“We do allow drinking, and we do allow smoking, but for some reason we have to stop there. We’ve already allowed these other vices, these other things that we see to be sinful behaviors, so they’re going to have to have a hard line somewhere, and that’s the lottery. My counter to them is then they should draw the hard line on smoking and drinking, and on the sale of alcohol or cigarettes, and not the sale of lottery tickets.”

According to the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services, Utah had $557.5 million in alcohol sales for fiscal year 2022. That resulted in $229.9 million in state funding.

Based on information from Truth Initiative, Utah received an estimated $154 million in tax revenue through tobacco sales in fiscal year 2021.

How much could Utah generate in lottery tax revenue?

Despite a ban, Utah residents can still cross the border to play multistate lottery games in other states.

According to Birkeland, over $200 million is being spent out of state by Utahns to play the lottery. That is money being spent by residents that isn’t going back to the state.

It’s hard to say just how much money Utah could generate in lottery sales, but there are some indicators to look at.

According to World Population Review, Utah has an estimated population of 3.5 million people. That ranks 30th in the US behind Connecticut and in front of Iowa.

In fiscal year 2023, the US generated $113.34 billion in lottery sales. Connecticut had $1.47 billion in sales, while Iowa had $481.5 million.

When looking at states that border Utah, here’s what they did in lottery sales for FY23:

  • Arizona: $1.52 billion
  • Colorado: $889.8 million
  • Idaho: $422.5 million
  • Nevada: No state-run lottery
  • New Mexico: $168.5 million
  • Wyoming: $44.2 million

In an effort to find a compromise on getting a lottery legalized, Birkeland was even open to the idea of restricting where tickets could be sold.

Only allowing select cities around the perimeter of Utah to sell lottery tickets would keep residents from contributing their dollars to another state.

“We kind of came to that conclusion towards the end of the session that if we just set up the lottery on the counties that border the other states, we could at least keep that money from going outside of our state, and just keep it within our state without making it accessible to everyone. There’s ways, I believe, that we could (have a lottery) that would model good behavior and that would help incentivize good practices, while still increasing our revenue as a state.”

Where would funding for the Utah Lottery go?

Among the many hurdles still in the way of getting a lottery legalized in Utah is where the tax revenue would go.

Many states use their lotteries to help fund education or other special interest programs.

Birkeland has been an advocate for the revenue aiding in lowering property taxes throughout the state:

“What I intend to do when I ran the legislation was to have any revenue received as a state from the lottery to go towards reducing property taxes, the property tax levy. There were discussions towards the end of the general session that if we had a lottery, property tax is a good approach for funding. That’s an issue where I think we gain a lot of favor with some of the Republicans that may be hesitant.”

During this latest legislative session, Birkeland has also grown on the idea that lottery tax revenue could aid residents dealing with disabilities.

The state is struggling to meet the needs of a growing population that needs disability funding.

“Another place that that we discussed towards the end of the session was the lottery would fund our disability waitlist. There is a long waitlist for disability funding, and a lot of people will pass away before they ever get the help that they really need.

“So, the lottery could fund that, and it relieves some of that financial burden for those with disabilities. That really did strike a chord with me and many in the Utah House, because we’re looking at this waitlist now and how much we continually add to it every year. The demand for help is just increasing above and beyond what we’re able to fund. So, we need to figure out another way to help fund that waitlist. It really sucks up a lot of our social services funding.”

2027 a realistic target for lottery ban to end in Utah

Though Birkeland’s efforts for a Utah lottery were unsuccessful this year, she’s not going to give up on the idea.

Birkeland’s term in the House will end as of Jan. 1, 2025, but she is running for re-election.

Should she win, Birkeland plans to bring up the topic again when the 2025 legislative session occurs in January:

“I will open the bill file again. We’ll run it again, because if no one runs it, it doesn’t get talked about. I think it needs to be discussed.”

Birkeland identifies Senate President Stuart Adams as one of the biggest hurdles to getting a state lottery to the ballot.

Adams has been one of the most vocal against the idea and carries a lot of influence in the Senate. When asked about the bill last February, Adams told the Utah News Dispatch its odds in the Senate were “not very high.” He referred to lotteries as “regressive.”

His term as president began in 2019, with it scheduled to end on Jan. 1, 2027.

“There’s definitely potential (for a Utah lottery). I think when the Senate President retires, or is no longer in office, that parimutuel betting and the lottery, I believe, will fare a really strong chance.”

Because of Adams’ term, Birkeland realistically believes that a lottery is still a few years out in Utah.

“I do think it will take at least two more sessions. After two more sessions, I think it has a very good chance.”

Utah legislative sessions start in mid-January and conclude in early March each year. Should a lottery bill get passed in a given year, it would then be put to the public for a vote the following November.

Should the ban on lotteries end in 2027, it would still be until at least 2028 for a Utah Lottery to actually exist.

 

Photo by Rick Bowmer / AP

About the Author

Drew Ellis

Drew Ellis

Lead Writer
A member of Catena Media since 2020, Drew Ellis is the Lead Writer at PlayiLottery, where he handles coverage of the online and retail lottery industry in the US. He previously spearheaded news content at PlayMichigan, where he covered one of the most prominent online lottery industries in the US — among the many other aspects of Michigan's sprawling iGaming market. You can email him at [email protected].
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