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Lotteries in the United States

In the United States, lotteries are run by 47 jurisdictions: 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Lotteries are subject to the laws of and operated independently by each jurisdiction, and there is no national lottery organization. However, consortiums of state lotteries jointly organize games spanning larger geographical footprints, which in turn, carry larger jackpots. Two major lottery games, Mega Millions and Powerball, are both offered in nearly all jurisdictions that operate lotteries, and serve as de facto national lotteries.

Gambling as a generalization has roots in the United States and other English colonies as far back as the 1600s. Not every colony allowed gambling, however. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, did not allow cards, dice or gaming tables, even in private residences. In most colonies however, gambling was seen as a harmless distraction as long as it was played in a gentlemanly manner.

The acceptance of gambling in the colonies was fairly short-lived by English investors because it was seen as a sign of laziness and as a vice. The investors saw gambling as a root cause of the colonies’ inability to sustain themselves. Lotteries were used not only as a form of entertainment but as a source of revenue to help fund the colonies. The financiers of Jamestown, Virginia, for instance, funded lotteries to raise money to support their colony. These USA lotteries were quite sophisticated for the time period and even included instant winners. Not long after, each of the 13 original colonies established a lottery system to raise revenue. In early American history, legislators commonly authorized lotteries to fund schools, roads, bridges, and other public works. Evangelical reformers in the 1830s began denouncing lotteries on moral grounds and petitioned legislatures and constitutional conventions to ban them. Recurring lottery scandals and a general backlash against legislative corruption following the Panic of 1837 also contributed to anti-lottery sentiments. From 1844 to 1859 alone, 10 new state constitutions contained lottery bans. By 1890, lotteries were prohibited in every state except Delaware and Louisiana.

State lotteries have become a significant source of revenue for states, raising $17.6 billion in profits for state budgets in the 2009 fiscal year (FY) with 11 states collecting more revenue from their state lottery than from their state corporate income tax during FY2009. Lottery policies within states can have conflicting goals. Given that instructions are passed down from state legislatures, lottery implementation is often expected to be carried out with reduced advertising and funding while still producing the same amount of revenue. This issue led states to look for loopholes in the system. Massachusetts, for example, had its advertising budget dramatically cut, and therefore started using free-play coupons as money to pay for advertising. This led to an IRS investigation into alleged non-reporting of income because the IRS considered the coupons to have monetary value.

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