Tennessee groups representing lottery retailers are at odds with a state lawmaker attempting to expand public access to those retailers’ sales information.
Last month, Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, introduced legislation that would remove an exemption in the state lottery law that currently blocks access to the individual sales information of stores that sell lottery products. Lundberg has said the “public has a right to know” how lottery money flows. He called the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation a “quasi-state agency” because it contributes to education funds, arguing that it should be as transparent as typical state agencies.
Lundberg said he proposed the bill after reading about the exemption in the Bristol Herald Courier in December. The newspaper published a package of stories about the lottery in Virginia, but was unable to reproduce parts of the story for Tennessee because of the exemption.
Lottery groups oppose the bill. The Tennessee Lottery Retailer Advisory Board, which represents a network of 5,000 state lottery retailers, voted unanimously to oppose the legislation. The Tennessee Fuel & Convenience Store Association is also in opposition.
Those organizations argue that the change would add a security risk because criminals would know which stores bring in the most money. They claim that such a risk would result in some retailers choosing not to sell tickets.
The Tennessee Lottery itself has not taken a position on the legislation, according to spokeswoman Kym Gerlock.
According to documents drafted by the Tennessee Lottery that outline the potential impact of the bill on the lottery business, lottery officials assume that 5 percent of its 5,000 retailers — 250 stores — would choose to no longer carry lottery products “due to this increased security risk.” If the information had been available in 2016 and that happened, lottery officials estimate that $19.5 million in revenue would have been lost.
Lundberg said he doesn’t buy the argument.
“I vehemently disagree with that,” he said. [Increased crime and loss of retailer participation] hasn't been the effect of any other state where they release that information.”
Even so, Lundberg plans to amend the bill. Instead of requiring that the lottery release sales information by individual retailer, the amendment would broaden the requirement to the level of zip code sales data.
The lottery does release the top-selling retailers in the state, as well as county-wide sales data.
When asked how the lottery produced the estimated economic and retailer losses, Gerlock, the spokeswoman, said the estimates were created “without the aid of any historical data, which does not exist since individual retailer sales have always been exempt.”
Gerlock said the estimates were requested by the Senate Fiscal Review Committee.
Emily LeRoy, executive director of the Tennessee Fuel & Convenience Store Association, said the group’s opposition is largely about the safety of clerks.
“The idea that there are large amounts of cash that might be on hand, we think, would attract theft and would compromise the safety of our clerks,” she said.
LeRoy said another concern is about the business side of things. She said the way the law is currently written is meant to protect the business interests of retailers, set up so that competitors don’t have access to sales data.
“We don’t think that the sales information should be competitive information,” LeRoy said.
Lottery officials with two states that neighbor Tennessee that do provide individual retailer sales information say they’ve had no problems with crime or low participation by retailers.
Van Denton, communications director of the North Carolina Education Lottery, said he couldn’t speak to the specifics of why Tennessee might want to keep sales information secret, but in his seven years with the lottery, he said he hasn’t heard of issues.
“We haven’t experienced any problems with [sales information] being public,” Denton said.
Virginia also releases individual sales information. John Hagerty, a lottery spokesman, said sales figures of retailers have been public record since the lottery began in 1988.
“We’re not aware of any complaints or lost retailers over open records laws, possibly because that’s always been the expectation,” Hagerty said in an email.
LeRoy pointed out that each state lottery is unique, and those states may have different needs than Tennessee.
“Tennessee did a really excellent job when they did the initial underlying with our lottery — ours is more successful than many other states,” LeRoy said. “We have a formula that really works and when you have a formula that works you need to stick with it.”
Some Bristol lottery retailers say they aren’t concerned about a potential law change.
The Herald Courier spoke with three lottery retailers along Volunteer Parkway, the main corridor in and out of Bristol, Tennessee. All three said they aren’t concerned about potential crime and would continue selling lottery products, regardless of a law change.
Sommer Bellamy is a manager of the Roadrunner Shell station, at the corner of Driftwood Lane and Volunteer Parkway. Bellamy said crime doesn’t concern her because the store has a safe into which cash is deposited multiple times a day. Employees cannot access the safe, even if demanded.
Bellamy estimated that one-quarter of all Roadrunner sales come from lottery tickets.
“As much money as we make off it, it would be hard to just quit selling them,” she said. “Our business would drop tremendously.”
Abaid Ali owns the Exxon station at the corner of Craig Drive and Volunteer Parkway, which has a large Tennessee Lottery sign out front that reads “Play here.”
“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” he said of the potential that his store’s lottery sales would be public.
LeRoy said she’s confident some retailers would be uncomfortable with the change.
Lottery Retailer Advisory Board member Tommy Hunt of E-Z Stop Food Marts in Maryville did not return a phone call Wednesday.
The Senate Lottery Oversight Committee was scheduled to convene Wednesday morning to discuss Lundberg’s amendment, but President Donald Trump’s visit to Nashville postponed it. The meeting will take place in two weeks.