‘Play at the Pump’ initiative comes under fire

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New Mexico Lottery tickets can be bought at gas pumps at Murphy Express stores in Albuquerque, including this one, at 600 San Mateo SE, and at Latitudes, 2401 Rio Rancho Blvd. SE. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Carwash today? Want a receipt? How about a Powerball ticket?

The options at the gas pump have expanded as the New Mexico Lottery tries a “Play at the Pump” program at some Albuquerque stations, allowing motorists who fuel up using debit cards to buy lottery tickets.

While it may be welcome news to lottery fans trying to avoid going into convenience stores, the pilot program has rankled a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

Members of the state House Ways and Means Committee sent a letter this week to the New Mexico Lottery suggesting that it may be operating the program illegally because the Legislature didn’t change the law to allow it.

“I was shocked,” Ways and Means Chairman Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, told the Journal on Wednesday. “I did not understand how they could move forward with that when the Legislature for two years in a row said ‘No.'”

The pilot program to sell Powerball and Mega Millions tickets at the pump began last week at 13 retailers that have about 100 fuel pumps, according to the lottery.

Current law says lottery tickets may be bought only with cash or a check.

A 2015 Senate bill initially would have allowed debit card lottery purchases, as well as purchases of $20 or less with a credit card. It was changed to remove the credit card provision, passed the Senate, then died in the House.

The issue was resurrected last year during debate on another Senate-passed lottery bill. Ways and Means members worried its vague wording could open the door to expansion, such as video gambling and sales at gas pumps, and killed the bill, Harper said.

“I think there was sort of widespread opposition to the idea of expanding access to these lottery games,” for which working-class New Mexicans tend to be the customers, said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, a committee member.

All 13 committee members signed the letter, suggesting that the lottery either illegally implemented the new technology or misled the Legislature in 2015 by supporting legislation to authorize debit cards.

Wendy Ahlm, the New Mexico Lottery’s director of advertising and marketing, said Wednesday that the lottery’s legal counsel was working on a response to the committee’s letter.

The lottery’s position, she said, is that it didn’t need a change in the law to allow debit card purchases.

“I can tell you that a debit card transaction is a form of an electronic check. You’re not buying on credit; you’re buying with money you have in your account,” Ahlm said.

The sponsor of the Senate bills, Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said he shares the lottery’s view.

“It’s sort of like a check, as far as I’m concerned. … I don’t have any problem with it,” he told the Journal.

The House committee raised a concern in its letter that 16-year-olds using debit cards to buy gas could illegally buy lottery tickets. State law says lottery players must be 18 or older.

Ahlm said that when debit cards are swiped to buy lottery tickets, the software verifies whether cardholders are 18 and rejects the sales if they’re not. Even if minors were using their parents’ cards, they wouldn’t be able to claim the winnings, she said. Winnings of $600 or less are automatically deposited into card owners’ accounts and winnings of more than that require card owners to collect in person, she said.

The lottery is governed by a seven-member board of directors appointed by the governor. The board hires the chief executive officer, who runs its day-to-day operations.

CEO David Barden said in announcing the new program last week, “The world is changing and lottery players have told us they want more convenient ways to buy our jackpot games.”

“The bottom line is maximizing revenues for the lottery scholarship fund by increasing retailer sales so we can provide more dollars for scholarships,” Barden said.

Easy buy

Gas station customers interviewed by the Journal on Wednesday agreed it would make buying lottery tickets easier.

“It’s pretty cool and convenient. I had no idea one could do so,” said Rio Rancho resident Pamela Lujan. She was fueling up at Latitudes in Rio Rancho, where big stickers next to the pumps advertised the new program.

“I love the convenience of not having to go inside the store to purchase the tickets,” said Zeke Castillo of Albuquerque, who was buying gas at a Murphy Express station in Southeast Albuquerque. He hadn’t bought tickets at the pump yet, but said he would.

Albuquerque resident Jessica Bachicha, buying gas at a Murphy Express in Southwest Albuquerque, wasn’t so sure it was a good idea, however.

“It might be convenient to buy them, but how do you keep the minors away from this? What’s next, alcohol?” she asked.

According to the lottery, the program is underway at the Latitudes station and 12 Murphy Express sites.

The seven Republicans and six Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee expressed other concerns with the pilot program, as well.

While four other states that offer lottery at the pump – California, North Carolina, Missouri and Pennsylvania – use a public process to come up with rules for such programs, “the New Mexico Lottery appears to have rolled out this game with no notice or public hearing,” the committee’s letter said. It questioned whether open meetings laws had been violated.

And the committee questioned whether the expansion could adversely affect the gambling compacts with Indian tribes under which they share casino revenue with the state.

“To me, it really boils down to the question of who has the authority to change laws in this state,” Harper told the Journal. “Is it the regulatory industry or your elected citizen Legislature?”

Journal photographer Roberto E. Rosales contributed to this report.

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It is now possible to purchase New Mexico Lottery tickets at gas pumps at certain locations throughout the city including Latitudes, located at the entrance to Rio Rancho on Highway 528. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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This Murphy's Express gas station at Blake and Coors SW sells lottery tickets at the pump. Legislators say the New Mexico Lottery may have illegally allowed such sales. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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