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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
The Observer

Faculty research legalized gambling and its revenue

He has only been to one casino in his lifetime, and the only lottery ticket he has ever owned was given to him by a friend, but professor of political science Patrick Pierce has become an expert on the politics of legalized gambling.

In the 1990s, Saint Mary’s started a number of grants to support faculty research and teaching. Pierce said he and Donald Miller, a professor of mathematics at the College, received the COSTAR grant, which was designed to support research across disciplines.

“[Miller] and I were close friends, and he decided that he would like to work with me on one of these research projects,” Pierce said. “He was from the state of Ohio. Ohio had an education lottery. [Miller] was an essentially skeptical person about politics and government, and he just believed that education lottery wasn’t really helping education in Ohio.”

Working together for 15 years, Pierce and Miller did a study on how lottery revenue was being used and then did more localized case studies to explain why states legalized gambling, why they established state lotteries and how gambling spread the way it did. They compiled their research into a book titled “Gambling Politics: State Government and the Business of Betting.”

Pierce said it is largely understood that the revenue from casinos and state lotteries would be used for a specific purpose. Although the state could put the revenue in the general revenue pool, he said, some states chose to designate it for a specific purpose, most often education.

“What lots of folks don’t understand is how that affects the budgetary process,” Pierce said. “Everybody thought when you say the lotto revenue was going toward education, that that would be on top of what we already spend for education.”

However, Pierce said some states substitute the lottery revenue going towards education for part of the general revenue allocated for education, freeing up some of the revenue to go wherever the state legislature wants to use it.

He said because there was such a large understanding that the revenue would supplement the education budget, using it as a substitution was deceptive of state legislatures. He said in the long haul, by having an education lottery, states were actually spending less money on education than they would have if the money had come from general revenue.

“This is a problem in the sense that our public officials ought to be honest with us about policies they’re supporting,” Pierce said. “That sounds like the revenue is doing things that people believed it wasn’t supposed to do. … They were engaging in a certain degree of implicit deception of the public in terms of how they handled this revenue that belongs to all of us because it’s paid into the government.” 

Pierce said he enjoys the research process and the results it can yield.

“I love doing research,” he said. “I think it’s one of those fundamentally human things that you want to know why things are the way they are. … I think that you can indirectly have an impact on policy; you can help policy be a little bit better.

“I want to inform public debate. It’s better to know why things are working the way they are if you want to evaluate them and say they’re good ideas or bad ideas. That research can also help you understand if they are good ideas, how might we change that existing policy.”

Discussions about educational lotteries in the media noticeably increased after his research was published, Pierce said.

“It changed the way states handled new lotteries,” he said. “Instead of saying the lottery funds are going towards education, they established a brand new fund.”

Pierce said a notable case of this happened in Georgia. He said the state government now uses lottery revenue for a fund called HOPE Scholarships, so that people now know exactly where the revenue is going.

“The whole process had a lot more integrity,” Pierce said. “There’s no implicit deception going on. If you’re buying a lottery ticket, you know it’s going into HOPE Scholarships, and you know it’s being used for that purpose, and it’s not going to substitute for anything else.”

Pierce has been interviewed by a number of newspapers and networks about his expertise, including NBC and CNN. He said he uses these interviews as an opportunity to teach people about gambling politics and spread the name of Saint Mary’s.

“I really think of it as service to the College,” Pierce said. “It’s the opportunity to get Saint Mary’s name out so that maybe that a woman in high school in Peoria hears the name of Saint Mary’s College and maybe thinks about coming here. For those students who have graduated from here, it’s just a valuable thing to raise the visibility of Saint Mary’s College so more people out there hear about us and know about us.”