No Virginia, the lottery is not being milked to make up the state's $1 billion budget shortfall.
"It can't be," said Anne McCartin Doyle, lottery spokeswoman. "We are regulated by statute, which says all the revenue generated by the lottery must be used to aid education."
But this week, Lotto prizes were down -- to $2.25 million in Wednesday's game and $2.5 million for tonight's game. Prizes typically are at least $3 million on Wednesdays and $4 million on Saturdays.
"The lower Lotto jackpots we have been posting are a reflection of slower ticket sales, that's all," Ms. McCartin Doyle said.
Lotto sales have been declining by about $1 million per week, she said, and projections through the end of the calendar year don't make larger prizes seem possible -- unless no winning numbers are picked and the jackpots roll over.
But even then, the prizes are not as big as they once were.
After no winner was pulled Dec. 5, the rolled-over jackpot for last Saturday went only to $4.5 million, instead of the typical $6 million.
"There's no guarantee that we will have any particular prize," Ms. McCartin Doyle said. "But when we set a prize, unlike other states, it is guaranteed regardless of ticket sales."
The state tries to estimate ticket sales, she said, then set a potential jackpot for the Lotto game, one of six ways to place a legal bet. Last year, tickets worth more than $2 billion were sold in all categories, generating $928 million in revenue, after prizes and administration costs were paid.
The other games -- Cash 40, Pick 10, Daily Numbers and Win 4 -- are experiencing steady sales, Ms. McCartin Doyle said, as are the "scratch-off" ticket games. Four of those "instant winner" games currently are available.
But Lotto attracts the most play, and
the declining jackpots have raised eyebrows.
By state law, 40 cents of each dollar automatically goes to prizes and 45 cents goes to the state Education Department, via the comptrollers office.
The other 15 cents is earmarked for lottery administration costs. But those, typically, have been running about 11 1/2 cents on the dollar, so the schools have been getting another 3 1/2 cents of the gambler's buck each time a ticket is purchased.
Lottery officials say that ticket sales usually fall off around Christmas because people travel, break their normal routines and probably spend their money elsewhere.
"Also, the economy is a factor," Ms. McCartin Doyle said. "People are paying more for gasoline, for, example, so they may not have as much discretionary funds for amusement."