Utah Initiates Ambitious Bid to Create State Lottery

Quick Intro

Utah Representative Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, is generating significant buzz with her proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state lottery. This initiative, which needs to pass the legislature before it can be presented to voters in the November 2024 elections, aims to alleviate rising property tax pressures on homeowners. Birkeland acknowledges the challenging nature of this endeavor in Utah, one of the two states, alongside Hawaii, that currently prohibits all forms of legal gambling.

The other three states without a lottery, Alaska, Alabama, and Nevada, do have other forms of legal gambling. Interestingly, Hawaii and Alabama have considered legalizing gambling in recent years but have not yet made any progress. Unlike other states where the primary barrier to gambling expansion is opposition from existing stakeholders, Utah’s challenge lies in moral opposition, primarily from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which constitutes about two-thirds of the state’s population and opposes all forms of gambling.

Birkeland’s Vision: $200 Million from State Lottery

Representative Birkeland emphasizes that Utah residents are already spending significant amounts on lottery tickets out of state, estimated to be as high as $200 million. This scenario is akin to states without regulated online casinos losing out to the offshore black market. Much of this out-of-state lottery participation benefits neighboring states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Arizona. For instance, a 2012 study found that nearly 20% of lottery tickets sold in Idaho were purchased by Utahns, a figure that might have increased with the allure of billion-dollar jackpots.

Birkeland argues that a state lottery could be a solution to the burgeoning property tax issues in Utah. She is particularly concerned about older residents on fixed or low incomes who are struggling with rising tax demands. Her proposed bill is still in the drafting phase, focusing on these demographics.

Demographic Shifts: A New Hope for Lottery Legalization?

Despite the steep odds, Rep. Birkeland remains hopeful, advocating for adult decision-making and state benefits. Utah has seen past attempts to legalize various forms of gambling, though none have succeeded. However, changing demographics and a potential shift in LDS membership could create a more favorable environment for future lottery legalization. Some studies indicate a decline in Church membership, with recent research suggesting that the proportion of Mormons in Utah has dropped to 42% in 2023. Additionally, Church members’ views on certain issues, such as same-sex marriage, do not always align with official positions.

The argument highlighting revenue losses to neighboring states might influence some lawmakers. If Utahns continue to purchase lottery tickets elsewhere, the state will miss out on substantial potential revenue. This economic perspective, coupled with the changing demographics and ongoing discussions in other states like Nevada and Alabama about gambling expansion, might gradually pave the way for legalizing a state lottery in Utah.

Potential Economic and Social Impact of a Utah State Lottery

The introduction of a state lottery in Utah could have far-reaching economic and social implications. Beyond generating significant revenue, potentially in the hundreds of millions, a state lottery could fund critical public services, such as education, infrastructure, or healthcare. This financial injection could be a game-changer for many of Utah’s budgetary constraints. Additionally, the lottery could alter the social landscape, offering a regulated, responsible form of gambling while curtailing the flow of funds to neighboring states. However, balancing the potential economic benefits with the social and moral considerations remains a key challenge for lawmakers.

Final Thoughts

While the road to establishing a state lottery in Utah is fraught with challenges, particularly from moral and religious opposition, the potential economic benefits and changing demographics might gradually shift the tide in favor of legalization.