Lottery has been illegal in Utah since statehood. This lawmaker bets voters want to gamble.

A proposed constitutional amendment would remove a ban on “games of chance” in place since statehood. But senators say don’t bet on it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan talks to lawmakers meeting of the House Business and Labor Committee at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. Birkeland is betting Utah voters are ready to approve a state lottery.

Powerball could bounce into Utah if one state legislator gets her way — but don’t bet on it.

A bill unveiled Friday by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, proposes letting voters decide whether to amend the Utah Constitution to allow the Legislature to create a state-run lottery.

Birkeland said Friday that her goal in proposing the change is to generate revenue that can be used to help alleviate the burden of property taxes.

But the chances of the amendment even making it to voters’ ballots may be about as likely as buying that lucky lottery ticket.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the odds of the HJR24 getting the two-thirds support it needs in both the House and the Senate to even make it to the ballot is “not very high.”

And if it does make it that far, Senate Majority Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said “I would probably bet quite a bit of money in Vegas that wouldn’t pass.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, during a news conference addressing legislation aimed at teacher retention, at the Utah Captiol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

Birkeland said she “loves and respects President Adams,” but she’s willing to put her money on voters having their way.

“I think the people of Utah want it and I think representation matters,” she said. “So I trust they will do what their constituency wants. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Utah has had a constitutional prohibition on lotteries and all “games of chance” since statehood. Currently it is one of just five states — Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii and Nevada being the others — that do not have a lottery.

In 2021, the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau, lotteries generated $95.6 billion in sales nationwide and netted $26.9 billion after prize payouts and administration costs. Idaho, a hotspot for Utahns to buy lottery tickets, sold $343 million in tickets and netted $72.5 million. Colorado sold $733.8 million in tickets and netted $167.5 million.

“Realizing how much people are already spending [on the lottery] outside our state, to me it just seemed like, ‘Well, if we really wanted to be serious about it we could just use that funding,’” Birkeland said. “We wouldn’t even have to ask anyone else to change their habits at all and we would have quite a large influx of money.”

Utah has long been unique in its resistance to gambling, in part because it is prohibited by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Only Utah and Hawaii have no form of legalized gambling of any sort.

In 2019, state Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, who owns race horses, sponsored legislation to try to let voters decide whether to legalize betting on horse races, and the bill was approved at a committee hearing, but never made it to the Senate floor before the session ended.

In 1992, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have given counties the option of legalized parimutuel betting — where bets are pooled and payouts divided among winners — with just less than 40% of voters supporting the measure.

Betting on horses was actually legal in the state, despite the constitutional prohibition on “games of chance,” until 1926 when the Utah Supreme Court ruled that horse racing was considered a game of chance.

That wasn’t always the case.

During Utah’s Constitutional Convention, one of the delegates, Francis Hammond of San Juan County, rose to ask: “Will this prohibit horse racing? I am very fond of horse racing. I never bet much on it, but I am fond of it.” He was assured it would not.

Lotteries were another story, as delegates fretted that the forces trying to legalize the lottery in North Dakota would set their sites on Utah.

Without the explicit prohibition, argued delegate David Evans, “there will be a combination of people who will importune our incoming Legislature for the purpose of securing a franchise to carry on lotteries and games of chance. I believe that such institutions are wrong in principle. … I say, let us make a prohibition in the Constitution so that they will not even consider the question at all.”