1971: Jersey plays the numbers
DAVE NEESE / The Trentonian
New Jersey's new state lottery wasn't the only thing folks were talking about on Jan. 7, 1971, as the first weekly drawing approached.

Occasionally, the lunch counter conversation or taproom talk wandered on to other topics. For example, the John Wayne brouhaha.

At a gala for Gov. Ronald Reagan in California, Wayne had waded into a crowd of protesters waving Viet Cong flags and had given 'em a good cussin' out.

But no conversation went on for long, not even one about the Duke, without returning to the subject du jour, the new state-run lottery.

Especially not in a city like Trenton, with its long tradition of participating in, shall we say, non-sanctioned lotteries, i.e., "the numbers."

There was a time when a local newspaper even used to print the winning number in the non-sanctioned lottery, under the cryptic headline, "Numerology."

Now, with a new legalized lottery about to be launched, there was impassioned debate all over town whether a state-run game was destined to succeed or flop.

The "succeed" camp maintained that the state lottery would be a natural fit for New Jersey, given the wide acceptance by the populace of the numbers.

That's just the point, countered the "flop" camp. The numbers had a proven track record and offered better odds and more flexible play.

Yes, maybe the Mafia underbosses who ran the numbers weren't exactly choir boys, the "flop" camp adherents conceded. But neither were the politicians over at the State House, who would be running the legalized lottery with absolutely no experience at such things, they added.

As it happened, New Jersey mobsters and New Jersey politicians — long the topic of ignored lamentations by editorial writers and reformist do-gooders — had recently landed at the top of the public agenda with a loud crash.

The Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo tapes were to thank for that civic achievement.

The tapes — actually, eight volumes of FBI wiretap transcripts — were suddenly released in the midst of underworld boss DeCarlo's trial on extortion charges.

With their Runyonesque dialogue of mobsters boasting of their connections in high places, the transcripts sent some New Jersey pols scuttling for cover like rats in a building suddenly leveled by the wrecker’s ball.

New Jersey voters had approved a constitutional amendment for a state lottery in the November 1969 election. But with their civic awareness subsequently heightened by Gyp et al., the voters might have had second thoughts had they been able to foresee what was about to befall the cast of political characters behind the state lottery.

Front and center as guests of honor on the day of the drawing at the State Museum Auditorium, seated right up there with Miss New Jersey, were Billy Musto and Harry Sears, state senators.

The gravelly voiced Musto, a popular, roguish Union City Democrat, had crusaded for a state lottery for 25 years. By the time of the first drawing, he'd already been dubbed "the father of the state lottery."

The Brooks Brothers-suited Sears, a respected Morris County Republican with the poised and confident manner of a take-charge CEO, had served on the state panel that organized the operational details of the lottery after voter approval.

Both Musto and Sears, in the not-too-distant future, would find themselves sinking in the quicksand of their own separate scandals, although scandals unrelated to the lottery.

Musto, convicted of squeezing kickbacks out of public contracts, would follow the footsteps of his father, left many years earlier, into prison.

As for Sears, the investigative spotlight illuminated him in the act of lugging a suitcase stuffed with campaign cash to Richard Nixon's gang of unsavory political operatives.

The dignified Sears' punishment would be to bear, forever thereafter, the taunting sobriquet, "Suitcase Harry."

Yet another pol who had crusaded tirelessly for the state lottery, Congressman Cornelius Gallagher, a Bayonne Democrat, also would soon find himself chin-deep and going glub-glub-glub in the slough of his own scandal, also one not involving the lottery.

In retrospect, the involvement of such a cast of characters would not seem to have augured well for the prospects of an honest, state-run lottery.

Even though such key figures as Sears and Musto still had their reputations intact on the day of the first drawing, there were plenty of cynics around who were ready to cast doubts on the new enterprise.

They argued that the state's colorful history of underworld activity and political corruption doomed any state-run lottery from the get-go.

"You mark my word," said one such typical cynic, wagging an admonishing finger at a reporter seated on the next stool at a Chambersburg bar.

"The person holding the winning ticket will be a pal or relative of the governor. And the governor'll get his cut."

The governor, Bill Cahill, a one time FBI agent and feisty Republican who quarreled more bitterly with his own party than with Democrats, held the first ticket ever sold by the New Jersey Lottery. Luckily for the future of the lottery, the governor's ticket turned out to be a loser.

The first winning, $50,000 weekly ticket drawn — one with the numbers 394584 — was held by a widow who told the Lottery Commission she didn't want her name released.

Contrary to the predictions of cynics, the state run lottery was a success from the first drawing, which sold 6 million tickets.

In the first six months of its operation, the lottery grossed $70 million in ticket sales. The following 12 months, it grossed $135 million. In fiscal year 1997 98, it grossed $1.6 billion.

And, amazingly, the state run lottery succeeded in handling this tempting, massive cash flow without scandal. And not only without scandal but with admirable efficiency, siphoning off only about 1 percent of gross revenues for administrative expenses.

Today, the Lottery Commission can brag, and does so at every opportunity, that since that first drawing in 1971, the New Jersey Lottery has raised more than $10 billion for education and state institutions.

In the 1997 98 fiscal year alone the lottery raised $642 million for education and state institutions and shelled out $868 million in prizes.

As Gov. Cahill warned at the time, the lottery would prove to be "no panacea" for the state's budgetary problems.

It didn't stop the state from later hiking the existing sales and gasoline taxes. Or from imposing a massive new levy, the gross state income tax. Or from later increasing that levy as well.

All of these hikes would be greeted by a widespread taxpayer wail: "What'd they do with the lottery money?" (Short answer: They spent it.)

Even though lottery proceeds would prove hardly sufficient to avoid other tax hikes, they would be enough to become the state's fourth biggest source of revenue. Enough to get the state government hooked and turned into a lottery revenue addict.

And not just the state government got hooked.

The N.J. Compulsive Gambling Council says that 38 percent of the calls to its toll-free line (1-800-GAMBLER) come from people who've blown their money on lottery tickets and put themselves in desperate straits.

But to keep the lottery dollars flowing to state coffers, a frenetic Lottery Commission, in the manner of a carnival barker, keeps devising and hyping new games and gimmicks to entice players to part with their money. Instant game, 1975. Pick-4 game, 1977. Pick-6 Lotto, 1980. Jersey Cash 5, 1992. The Big Game, 1999.

And the ones who part with their money are, disproportionately, the ones who can least afford it.

You don't see, say, a Steve Forbes or a Christie Whitman among those lined up to buy lottery tickets.

You do see, on occasion, wretched, raggedy, toothless little old men and women counting out their last quarters at lottery ticket sales outlets.

They will sometimes tell you they glimpsed the winning number in a dream last night.

Well, doesn't it say right on the letterhead of the Lottery Commission's news releases, "It Pays to Dream"?
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Billy Musto --
"father of the state lottery."
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