ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The coronavirus and stay-at-home orders haven’t stopped New Mexicans from buying state lottery scratch-off tickets.
Sales of “scratchers” were up about 4% in April compared with the same month last year, with sales totaling about $7 million. But New Mexicans are shelling out less overall on lottery games because there has been a lack of big jackpots in national games such as Powerball and Mega Millions.
Lottery retailers, primarily convenience and grocery stores, have remained open as essential businesses, while the state-licensed racetrack-casinos were closed under state Department of Health orders. Native American casinos voluntarily closed about the same time as the racinos.
So despite being the only form of legalized gambling now operating in New Mexico, the lottery is now projected to generate only $37 million for the state college scholarship fund in the fiscal year that ends June 30, down from the initially budgeted amount of $40.9 million.
Lottery officials blame the projected shortfall on the lack of large jackpots in the national games.
“We haven’t seen any really large jackpots,” marketing director Wendy Ahlm said. “That really affects the bottom line.”
According to state lottery records, more people buy lottery tickets in the “draw” games when the payouts reach $250 million or above.
When the Mega Millions game payout reached $1.5 billion in fiscal 2019, the New Mexico Lottery posted record sales. The Powerball game also had a $768 million prize the same year.
Lottery sales in the state appeared to be trending downward in comparison to last year since January.
In preliminary and unaudited numbers for April, big-jackpot draw game sales dropped 18% from $4.3 million in April 2019 to $3.5 million last month.
Contributions from the lottery to the scholarship fund were down for the first quarter of the year, falling to $8.8 million from $11 million that was transferred into the fund during the first three months of 2019.
The instant ticket sales, which over the past decade have made up more than 50% of lottery sales, remain popular.
The games in New Mexico range from the “Fast $25” ticket that costs $1 for a chance to win $25 to the “Super Triple Red 777’s,” in which a $10 ticket has a top prize of $100,000.
Most tickets have multiple prize levels, ranging from $1 to the top prize.
The games are often criticized by gambling opponents, who say studies show the games are directed at the poor.
“There are many studies that show the economically disadvantaged spend their money on this type of lottery,” said Guy Clark, a dentist and longtime New Mexico gambling opponent.
His own concerns during the pandemic were raised by a news article showing a 16% increase in instant ticket sales in Texas when people started receiving their stimulus checks from the federal government.
“There is an ill-conceived notion that winning will improve their well-being,” Clark said.
The New Mexico Lottery has taken a low-key advertising approach during the pandemic.
“Our advertising has been directed at thanking people for supporting the lottery scholarship fund,” Ahlm said.
“During these difficult times, the lottery is working diligently to continue to ensure that our students receive the scholarship dollars they need,” Lottery CEO David Barden said.
But the Powerball Product Group and the Mega Millions Consortium do blame the pandemic for slumping sales across the country.
Each group adjusted how it determines the size of its payouts as a result of the impact of the pandemic.
Both organizations, in news releases last month announcing the changes, blamed stay-at-home orders issued because of the pandemic.
“The changes are in direct response to slowing sales during the current global pandemic,” the press release from the Mega Millions Consortium said.
“More states and cities have asked their residents to stay at home, which has affected normal consumer behaviors and Powerball game sales,” said Gregg Mineo, Powerball Product Group chairman and Maine Lottery director.