200 Years of Illinois: Playing the Numbers

On July 30, 1974, the state government of Illinois changed the dream life of its citizens. That day, the first state lottery tickets went on sale. Opened as a cabinet level position earlier that month, the State Lottery racked up gobs of money from the go. By the end of 1974, the game had sold 100 million tickets. The first of countless instant games followed the next year. Now the Illinois State Lottery runs so many scratch-off franchises it takes a vending machine to hold them all.

Officials sold the lottery as a way to fund schools, an attractive idea, until people realized the legislature had turned off education money from other sources. In 1984, a massive jackpot created the first Lotto celebrity when Chicagoan Mike Wittkowski scored the right numbers to collect a then-record $40 million prize. Wittkowski famously joked he would use the money to buy a bowling alley.

Politicians have long used the department as an enclave of patronage, doling out sweet multi-figure jobs to wives and relatives and other crony-dependents. Of course, the newly employed gave a little of their pay back to the Party in the form of mandatory “donations”—assuming a person wanted to keep his or her job. In 2003, the Illinois Times offered an amusing laundry list of other unsurprising sins:

[I]ts chief accountant Michael Kamnick pleaded guilty to stealing $44,000 from the department in the late 1990s. The Illinois Auditor General has also uncovered some political shenanigans, including workers retiring and then being retained as consultants. Employees recall days when the office was full of reckless behavior and patronage recipients who did no work. There was a time when “the booze was full,” said one Lottery veteran. “All upper level decisions were made after hours in bars.”

In 2015, the State Lottery reached new heights of embarrassment when the government announced it couldn’t afford to pay out the jackpots. Lawsuits ensued.