Commentary: Secret lottery

Oct 3, 2012

Presidents, governors and legislators come and go, but one thing remains the same. Politicians are all for full disclosure and transparency in government -- until they themselves get power. Then, there are things they want to keep us from knowing.

That’s where journalists come in. We think that in most cases, the public has the right to know what’s going on, even if that is inconvenient for the government. In fact, maybe even especially if it is inconvenient for the government. When you have any government doing things secretly without any oversight, that’s not democracy.

True, there are a very few exceptions. Delicate diplomatic negotiations do need to be kept secret, for a while.

The public safety probably outweighs our right to know when it comes to revealing where components are stored that might be used to make a radioactive “dirty” bomb.

But those few are far between, and right now, the Michigan Legislature seems to be about to pass a bill that would be a clear violation of the public’s right to know about the use of public money.

We’re talking about the lottery. Few noticed, but last week, our state Senate passed a bill that would allow any Michigan winners of big, multi-state lotteries to keep their identities secret.  Why?

Well, Senator Tory Rocca, a Sterling Heights Republican, is worried that suddenly being rich might be inconvenient for the new multimillionaires. He said he was worried about them being preyed on by scam artists and grasping relatives, maybe even murdered by violent criminals. Incredibly, the senate passed his bill almost unanimously.  And that was just plain wrong.

Why? Because this is public money we are talking about. In Flint, a former investigative journalist named Pat Clawson has long been a lonely watchdog looking out for the public interest.

He points out that suppressing the names of lottery winners would violate Michigan’s constitution, which requires that all state financial records be open to public inspection. Lottery winnings are public money, and we have the right to know where it goes. Nobody makes anybody buy a lottery ticket. My guess is if you asked those buying tickets whether having to be in the spotlight would be worth winning $300 million, they would say, “Hell yes.”

Frankly, I have to wonder whether Senator Rocca lives a sheltered life. I hate to break it to him, but you don’t have to be rich to be a target for scam artists and lazy sons-in-law.

Why, my e-mail this morning brought an offer from a Nigerian widow eager to share love and my credit card. As for the worry about violent murder, well, this isn’t Colombia.

Not yet, anyway. In fact, there are no known incidents in Michigan of any lottery winners even being robbed because of all the publicity.  This bill is bad for another reason. If we allow the politicians to suppress the identity of lottery winners, you can bet they’ll soon try to suppress other information, like how they are spending our money.  Again, we have a right to know how all public money is spent, including proceeds from the lottery. If you agree, you might want to let the governor and your state representative know how you feel.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.