Harvard stands to lose a substantial amount of unrestricted state aid if a bill filed in January by state Sen. James E. Timilty becomes law. According to the bill, any town that could sell lottery tickets but doesn’t do so will no longer get a share of the state’s lottery revenues.
Town Administrator Tim Bragan informed the Finance Committee about the possible loss of funds at its Feb. 1 meeting. He later told the Press in an email that the lottery money does not go to any particular part of the town finances, but rather is “spread through the whole budget.”
In fiscal 2016 the lottery distributed about $980 million in direct aid to Massachusetts cities and towns, of which Harvard received about $1.36 million. The amount each municipality gets is determined by a formula based on population and property values.
Timilty’s bill, Senate Docket 1471, states, “Any city or town that has the ability to provide the sales of the Massachusetts State Lottery games but does not provide opportunity for sales shall not receive funding from the fund known as the State Lottery and Gaming Fund.”
FinCom member Heidi Frank had an immediate—but perhaps not entirely serious—reaction to the information from Bragan: “Boy, we’d better start selling those lottery tickets!”
About giving lottery money only to towns where people buy tickets, committee member Dick Fellows asked rhetorically, “The towns with the idiots should get the money?”
Bragan and others pointed out that Harvard residents do contribute to the lottery by buying tickets where they work or shop, even if tickets are not available in town.
Among the types of businesses that typically sell lottery tickets are coffee shops, convenience stores, liquor stores, and bowling alleys, according to a list on the lottery commission’s website. Harvard has at least one business that might qualify in each of those categories, but none sells lottery tickets. (A store in Devens does sell tickets, but it does not count as being in Harvard.)
Selectman Stu Sklar, in a later telephone interview, said he thinks the chance that Timilty’s bill will become law is “next to zero.” He also pointed out that local businesses—not the town—made the decision not to sell lottery tickets. “The entities in town that could sell tickets choose not to, and that’s free enterprise,” he said.
Sklar said that cutting aid to Harvard and the other towns that don’t sell tickets would violate the original promise made when the lottery was established. “The pitch for lottery aid was that it was going to help all towns,” he said.
Harvard receives substantially more in lottery funds than many surrounding towns, as shown by a map on the lottery commission’s website. For example, Littleton received $655,000 in fiscal 2016, only about half as much as Harvard. Ayer received $698,000; Groton, $714,000; and Lancaster, $881,000. Acton received a little less than Harvard ($1.29 million) and Pepperell a little more ($1.376 million).
The lottery’s comparative largesse to Harvard has its roots in the years when the lottery distribution formula was first established, Bragan said at the FinCom meeting. The formula was set when Devens was an active Army base, and soldiers stationed there counted as part of Harvard’s population. Housing on the base also lowered Harvard’s average property values.
Although Fort Devens was deactivated in 1994, Harvard’s resulting population decrease in the 2000 and 2010 censuses did not cause a drop in the town’s share of lottery money. Bragan explained that, in the mid-1990s, the Legislature had put a “floor” under the lottery distributions, promising towns their share would not decline.
When the Massachusetts lottery was established in 1971, it was supposed to provide aid to poorer towns with less revenue from property taxes, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. But almost from the beginning, critics said the lottery was unfair to the very towns it was supposed to help. In 1991, according to an article in the Boston Globe, state Sen. Thomas Birmingham of Chelsea accused the lottery of functioning as a reverse Robin Hood, taking in money from poor towns and giving it to richer ones. The article quoted Birmingham as saying, “By and large the working- and middle-class communities are spending money on tickets and the wealthier communities are receiving it.” In his examples, Chelsea got back only 16 percent of what its residents spent on tickets, while the far wealthier Lincoln received 150 percent.
Timilty’s current bill would not alter the formula for distributing lottery funds, but at least a few of the 39 towns that do not sell tickets would be cut out of the pool entirely. Some of those towns ban the sale of tickets, while others—like Harvard— just don’t have stores that offer them. With fewer towns eligible for the money, the remaining towns would receive more.
According to Sean Rourke, district director for state Rep. Jennifer Benson, the key phrase in the bill is the one specifying a town “that does not provide opportunity for sales.” Some very small towns do not have a store with the internet connections to handle lottery transactions, or perhaps do not have a store at all. “It would all come down to what the definition of opportunity is,” Rourke said in response to a phone inquiry.