Two-Way: Arkansas Scholarship Lottery Director On 7th Anniversary

Sep 13, 2016

Arkansas Scholarship Lottery Director Bishop Woosley at KUAR Tuesday.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Revenue from the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery was up $3.8 million in August compared to the same month last year, totaling $35 million.

This month lottery officials are celebrating the 7th anniversary of its creation, which was authorized by Arkansas voters in 2008. Lottery Director Bishop Woosley spoke with KUAR about how the lottery is doing.

MICHAEL HIBBLEN: First, what's your reaction to this latest revenue report?

BISHOP WOOSLEY: Well, we're happy. We've had a very good start to the fiscal year and we've been blessed with a couple of nice, sizeable jackpots with Mega Millions and Powerball. We had fairly large jackpots in the beginning of the fiscal year and then near the end of August they built up above the $100 million mark again, so, very good. And our instant tickets, or scratch offs as most people call them, have continued to be up for about 24 straight months, so I'm happy to see that trend continue as well.

HIBBLEN: You're seeing a big increase thanks to the national games?

WOOSLEY: Yes, those... generally the jackpots drive sales. So on those months when you have low jackpots, there's not a ton you can do to drive sales. We're trying to do everyday play initiatives in our advertising and marketing, but you're really kind of at the mercy of those jackpots. So when they get larger, up to $100 million and above, you see sales start picking up, especially when both of them are at that stage, it's real healthy.

HIBBLEN: But the amount of money raised for college scholarships was the same as a year ago. Why the difference (despite making more revenue in August)?

WOOSLEY: Well, there's two reasons. When you sell more, you give away more prizes. Our prizes were fairly high last month. We have a program called a Play It Again program. And what it is is when you don't win on a scratch off ticket you can go in and enter your ticket into our players club. And once a game is over we enter it into a drawing and we give away a last top prize and it just so happens we gave away a million dollar play it again prize in August. And a million dollar prize just comes right off the top. So it's a good thing because someone wins a million dollars, but from a funding standpoint, we always take a bit of a step backwards when you have those prizes, but they're kind of a necessary evil.

HIBBLEN: Well this month marks the 7th anniversary of the creation of the lottery. Do you feel it has met the promise made to voters who approved it in 2008?

WOOSLEY: I think so. There's been a lot of publicity over the years. We had a world record startup which probably set some expectations above what we were going to end up doing. And then when we fell off in sales for a couple of years, and I think what we've done has built it back up to where it's probably going to be. We've got a consultant now and that's going to help us build it even more. When we started up, I think they projected we would make about $55 or $60 million a year and we've returned probably between $85 and 90 (million) a year, so even though it dropped, it's still much higher than they had anticipated.

HIBBLEN: You've had to scale back the scholarship sizes three times.

WOOSLEY: Yes.

HIBBLEN: Do you anticipate any more of those?

WOOSLEY: Well, you know, that's really a legislative question. We don't have anything to do with it other than what we make. I think what they've tried to do in the last session was take the historical data and try and build the scholarship criteria and the funding to where they wouldn't have to do anything to it for a couple of years, and with anything, there's growing pains and you're trying to figure out the best amount and last year we actually got a refund from the Department of Higher Education for unused scholarship money. So it looks like, based on the fact that we got money back, it was done just about right.

HIBBLEN: What are the key challenges at this point that you hope to address?

WOOSLEY: Well, we just have to remain relevant. With gas prices being down, that gives people discretionary money and we make most of our money from discretionary money, so we have to keep putting out games that people enjoy and that they think are fun and that they have a win belief and think that if they play it, they will win and feel that win because if you feel it, then you talk about it to your friends and things of that nature. But for the most part, its just to keep putting out games and marketing those games to where people are attracted to them and see them and want to come out and play them. We have more competition, we've got racinos in the state, and there may be other things after the election is done, the constitutional measure, so it's a more competitive environment and not only are we competing against other gaming, we're just competing with people going out to eat and other social activities.

HIBBLEN: I've heard some criticism in the past that some of the top counties buying tickets weren't proportionately getting scholarships. I think one year Jefferson County was the second biggest, but it wasn't in the top 10. Is that still the case?

WOOSLEY: You know, I haven't seen in the last couple of months to look at that, but probably. When you follow the population of a county, the larger counties obviously sell the most. I think that there are several factors that play into that. I think Jefferson County and Pulaski County and some of the larger counties do carry a little bit more, but we try to do a play responsibly message. I don't know what plays into how much a school district gets from... you know, it may be related to scores, it may be related to applications and things of that nature. I think at one point there was a question at a Legislative Oversight Committee about one school district being low in the actual scholarships that were awarded and it turned out that school didn't have a guidance counselor for a couple of years and therefore the students weren't getting the guidance in helping them fill out financial aid forms and therefore they didn't do as much. But yeah, there's probably some areas that buy more and are a little bit underserved and to the extent that we can do things with problem gambling messages and things of that nature, we try and do that. But that's an issue for sure.

HIBBLEN: Any other thoughts going forward?

WOOSLEY: No, we're pleased with the progress we've had. We have in the last two years, like I said, we have seen a turnaround in sales. Last year we improved our return by over $13 million, from about $72.5 to $85 (million) and we're hoping to continue that trend. We had a wonderful Powerball jackpot as everyone knows last year in January which was probably a once in a lifetime-type jackpot and so you've got to fulfill expectations and meet those and that's what we're trying to do is just continue the positive growth.