Pinpointing the worst government agency in scandal-ridden, inefficient New Mexico might seem like an impossible job.
The New Mexico Lottery Authority makes it easy.
This is the agency that recently gave its CEO, David Barden, a raise of $46,000 a year. That was a 26 percent bump, which probably was about nine times higher than any raise you received. Barden’s annual salary rose from $174,142 to $220,000.
Now he and his cohorts who run lottery are trying again to scare the public with their sky-is-falling economic forecasts.
Barden and his purported supervisors on the authority say lottery ticket sales will level off and then decline unless state legislators approve a new law reducing the amount of proceeds guaranteed for college scholarships.
He wants to offer bigger lottery prizes while money for scholarships shrinks. Barden says this would be a temporary setback for the scholarship program. Once he entices new throngs of gamblers to buy lottery tickets on the slender hope of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot, more money than ever will flow to the scholarship program.
All the evidence in New Mexico shows that Barden’s proposal would lead to brisker business for lottery vendors and more spending on advertising lottery jackpots. There is not a stitch of proof that it would help send more kids to college or cover a larger share of their expenses.
Still, Barden and glib lobbyists for the vendors annually ask state legislators to repeal the law mandating that 30 percent of gross lottery revenues be designated for college scholarships.
In most years, the requirement has translated to more than $40 million for scholarships. The program is a ringing success story in a state that too often makes headlines for failures in education.
It has helped more kids go to college and graduate with minimal debt for student loans.
The only flaw in the system was the greed of university administrations. They saw a cash cow in the scholarship program and milked it by regularly raising tuition. Legislators have worked to lessen that problem with reforms on how the scholarships are administered.
But to hear Barden tell it, the state is missing a revenue stream wider than the Rio Grande. If he only had more money for prizes and advertising on the front end, the lottery someday would provide even more money for scholarships.
Barden, with a higher salary than the governor, would bear no risk if legislators ended the 30 percent guarantee for scholarships. Students are the only ones who could lose.
Barden’s proposal is the sort of trickle-down economics that President Ronald Reagan used to help his wealthy pals. Reagan succeeded in making a favored few richer with a revised tax code that came at the expense of poorer people. The middle class has been shrinking ever since.
Under state law, the only reason the lottery exists is to provide college scholarships. But some lawmakers buy into Barden’s proposal, ignoring ample evidence that the system in place is best for students.
The Legislature waited until 2008 to establish the mandate that 30 percent of gross lottery revenues would be used for scholarships. Only then did the scholarship fund regularly exceed $40 million a year.
When the lottery was freer to manage its financial affairs, it never came close to providing that amount to send kids to college. Instead, the lottery spent more money on administration and vendors.
This is one reason to be skeptical of the lottery brass. Another is the fat raise it awarded to Barden on grounds that he was underpaid.
Lottery Authority Chairman Dan Salzwedel said Barden’s salary was “below market” for lottery administrators.
Fred Nathan, who leads the public policy organization Think New Mexico, doubted Salzwedel’s accounting. Nathan had his interns called 43 state lotteries, and they uncovered some eye-opening data.
New Mexico’s lottery is the 40th largest in the nation in revenues, but Barden’s salary is the sixth-highest for an administrator.
“He makes more than directors of the lotteries in Texas, California, New York and Florida, which have multibillion-dollar revenues compared with New Mexico’s $143 million,” Nathan said.
To put a finer point on it, Barden has a higher base salary than his counterparts in the four most populous states.
You have to give him his due. He hit the jackpot without buying a ticket.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-490-1048.