Lotto fever streaked across California on Friday in anticipation of a whopping $40-million payoff tonight amid continuing criticism by the state’s top education official that the popular game has failed to benefit schools as its boosters promised.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, in a recent report to the Legislature, said figures show that lottery revenue is supplanting, rather than augmenting, state support of public schools.
Honig’s comments were the latest in a series of barbs aimed at the lottery by state education officials and lawmakers, many of whom have long been dubious of claims that the game would be an economic bonanza for schools.
The mounting criticism, however, has not diluted the enthusiasm Californians have displayed for Lotto 6/49. From San Diego to Eureka, retailers on Friday reported a mushrooming appetite for tickets among shoppers who queued up with cash in hand as word of the mammoth jackpot spread.
In Orange County, people consumed with Lotto 6/49 fever were buying two to five times more tickets than during an average week, merchants said Friday.
Ricardo Soria, 30, manager of El Gaucho Liquor in Santa Ana, said he usually sells 6,000 tickets a week. By Friday night, he said, he already had sold 12,800 tickets.
“All the closet gamblers come out,” Soria explained. “Nobody’s excluded once (the jackpot) gets this high.”
Today’s Lotto jackpot was expected to be the largest since Jan. 21, when seven people divided winnings of $41.5 million. If it beats that mark, it would rank as the third largest in the 3-year history of the game. The biggest Lotto jackpot was $61.98 million--a North American lottery record set Oct. 29; the second biggest, $51.4 million, was in June.
The prospect of winning such riches attracted such people as a 30-year-old Costa Mesa purchasing agent who bought tickets with dreams of becoming rich.
“I’m not a steady lottery buyer,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “I wouldn’t waste my money on it.”
But whenever the jackpot rises to at least $40 million, he said, he buys a few tickets. “It gets up that high, so you throw $5 at it.”
Esther Myer of Santa Ana usually buys 100 of the $1 Lotto 6/49 tickets when the jackpot has bulged. This time, she said as she left a Santa Ana liquor store, she had limited herself to 20 tickets.
“I bought a few more, but it hasn’t proven to be beneficial,” she explained. “We don’t do any better whether we spend $100 or whether we spend $20.”
Christy N. Ankney, 21, said ticket sales were three times higher than usual on a Friday at the 7-Eleven in Costa Mesa where she works. More than 3,300 tickets were sold, contrasted with 880 on Friday last week.
“I just hate it because it’s so busy,” Ankney said.
Co-worker Maria D. Kaiser, 19, said so many people had come to buy tickets that she didn’t take a break for 4 hours.
“Usually (a Friday) would be a dead night,” Kaiser said. “But tonight it’s been packed.”
While Kaiser and Ankney bemoaned the extra work, customer Mike S. Allen, 27, of Costa Mesa plunked down $5 for a chance to become a multimillionaire.
“I’ve never won nothing; but eventually I’ll get it,” Allen said.
“Business is booming. We love it!” said Neal Rocklin, owner of Ethical Drugs on 3rd Street in Santa Monica. “We’ve had between 10 and 50 people in line all day.”
Rocklin, whose pharmacy has a special counter to serve Lotto customers, said he expected sales income to hit $15,000 Friday and climb still higher today.
Lottomania was just as contagious in Northern California.
“It’s unbelievable--busy, busy, busy!” said Paul Lacitinola, owner of the Hootch Hut liquor and video store in Paradise, near Sacramento. “When the pool gets this big, everybody who doesn’t play suddenly wants to play. They come in and buy 300, 400, 500 at a time. It’s crazy!”
To encourage the frenzy, the Hootch Hut’s 24-hour “Lotto hot line” urged players to “beat the crowds” by not waiting until today to purchase the $1 tickets and offered a special incentive--suitcases packed with Diet Pepsi for “just $7.89.”
Eager to accommodate the demand, lottery officials extended by one hour the ticket purchase period on Thursday and Friday nights. Normally, the 7,200 vendors who sell tickets statewide must do so between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The stage for tonight’s huge payoff was set Wednesday, when players for the third straight time failed to select the six correct numbers between 1 and 49. The jackpot on Wednesday stood at $26.7 million. Five players--who bought tickets in San Francisco, Daly City, Castro Valley, Marina and West Sacramento--picked five of the numbers plus the bonus number in the midweek drawing and won $569,339 each.
When the jackpot goes unclaimed, the money is rolled over to the next drawing, and 20 cents is added from each ticket sold before the deadline. Tickets may be purchased until 7:45 p.m. tonight--just minutes before the televised drawing will take place.
State law earmarks about one-third of lottery revenues for public kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools and state colleges and universities. The bulk of that amount--about 28 cents of every $1 ticket--goes to the elementary and high schools.
But state and local education officials have complained that instead of paying for such extras as computers and library books, lottery revenue is used to cover such basic needs as salaries.
Honig’s report surveyed 841 of the approximately 1,000 school districts in the state to find out how the lottery money was being spent. It found that 60% of the money was spent on salaries and benefits; 14% was spent on equipment and maintenance, and 13% on books and supplies.
Terry Bustillos, administrator for business services for the Orange County Department of Education, said Friday the county’s 28 school districts received $14.5 million for the last quarter of 1988. The four community college districts received $3.4 million in the same period.
Bustillos said total figures for lottery funds to date were not immediately available, nor were breakdowns on how the funds were spent.
Honig’s report said that despite the influx of lottery dollars, the amount the state spends per pupil, when adjusted for inflation, dropped in 1987-88 by $46 to $3,731.
Education officials are projecting a similar decline in 1988-89.
Staff writer Maria Newman in Orange County contributed to this story.