WyoLotto is winner in eyes of some and disappointment to others still waiting for payoff

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — A year after the first lottery ticket was sold in the state, the Wyoming lottery is a winner in the eyes of some and a disappointment those still waiting for a payoff.

The first tickets for Powerball and Mega Millions, both national draw games, were sold in the state on Aug. 24, 2014, and the first in-state Cowboy Draw game tickets were sold March 15.

According to the Wyoming Lottery Corp., more than 577,000 players have won $5.2 million. Retailers that sell WyoLotto tickets have collected more than $1 million in commissions.

"It's been a successful first year, and we've certainly hit the targets that were given to me," Wyoming Lottery CEO Jon Clontz said.

But Wyoming Lottery also has received criticism in its first year for shielding financial information from the public and not returning any of its profits to local governments.

The 2013 Wyoming Legislature set up the lottery as a quasi-government organization run by a board of directors appointed by the governor. The law specifies that the first $6 million in net profits will go to local governments, and anything above that goes to a state school fund.

However, lawmakers did not appropriate any state money to start the lottery, forcing the lottery board to take out a private loan of nearly $3 million to cover startup costs.

The lottery corporation board decided that the loan should be paid off first before distributing any money to local governments.

Rep. Bunky Loucks, R-Casper, said he believes promises about millions of dollars flowing to local governments were overblown by proponents in order to get votes in the Legislature.

"Now they're basically saying, 'Ha, Ha. Who would ever thought we could have provided revenue to the state,' but that's what a lot of people believed was going to happen," Loucks said.

Loucks sponsored a bill in this year's legislative session to require some payments to local governments, but the proposal failed. Loucks said he will try again in the 2016 session.

Rep. David Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, was the main sponsor of the law creating the lottery in 2013.

Zwonitzer said his main reason for creating the lottery wasn't to fill government coffers.

He wanted to let Wyoming residents buy lottery tickets without having to travel to another state and help retailers who were losing business because of people spending their money in those other states, he said.

"In my opinion it was never set up as a profit center for the state of Wyoming," Zwonitzer said.

Clontz said the startup loan should be paid off next year, allowing money to start flowing to local governments.

Scott Badley, legislative manager for the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, said the organization is taking a wait-and-see approach for now.

"We're optimistic that they'll get startup loans paid back and then as the revenues come, in we'll start to see some," Badley said. "Then we'll see how it goes."

The amount of money that will go to local governments depends on ticket sales, Clontz said.

"The first full year, could we see a million dollars? We could. Do I think it will go up from there? I do think so. Will we ever reach the $6 million mark? Not with three games," Clontz said.

The law that created the lottery prohibits instant win scratch tickets, limiting Wyoming players to draw games.

In addition, about 58 percent of the $27 million in lottery proceeds from the games now offered went toward prizes in the first year. There are other costs, including administrative expenses.

Adding more draw games will help, but there's a limit to how many draw games can be offered, Clontz said.

"You can only have so many draw games," he said. "If we're prohibited from entering the instant market, with video lottery or scratch tickets, and we only are permitted to have draw games, then we're probably going to hit the ceiling at five or six games."

Whatever path the lottery takes in the future, Wyoming retailers are happy to see residents buying tickets at their local convenience store, grocery store, gas station and other outlets.

"It has stopped the bleeding of customers that were traveling across the state line to get lottery tickets and then, oh by the way, getting gas and other goods and services," Mark Larson, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association, said. "So at this point I think we're well pleased with the direction that it's gone and its implementation."

And, of course, the players who have hit a jackpot should be happy too, but they remain in anonymity because WyoLotto doesn't require that they publicly identify themselves.

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