Ohio gamble: Bringing a little Vegas fantasy to our COVID vaccination reality

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is about to bring a touch of Vegas to our coronavirus efforts.

The state will soon give away millions in federal stimulus dollars for people who have received the coronavirus vaccine in an effort to incentivize more Ohioans to take the shot. I have long admired DeWine and there is a noble purpose behind this move. However, the liberty shown over the use of federal money in a giveaway prize operation is breathtaking. Yet, DeWine is not the only official seeking to literally game the system on pandemic relief funds.

According to DeWine, any Ohioans aged 18 and older who have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine will be entered into a lottery with a total of five weekly drawings. Each winner will receive $1 million in federal money.

In addition, Ohioans under the age of 18 who are eligible to receive a vaccine will be entered into a separate drawing to win a four-year full scholarship to any of Ohio’s state colleges and universities, including full tuition, room and board.

Notably, 42% of the Ohio population has already received at least one shot. It is not expected that the percentage will get much higher than 70% and will likely result in far less than that number in most states. Thus, the vast majority of those playing the new lottery in Ohio will have already taken the shot without the inducement. For those “players,” this is literally a fun and unexpected gift from their governor using federal funds.

Since when is the federal treasury a source for lottery prizes? Many of us objected to the massive payments given the states with little debate and few controls. It is not surprising Ohio feels that it can simply give millions away of federal funds to lucky citizens who win the vaccine lottery. After all, Congress simply gave away hundreds of billions in unspecified relief.

Controversies are growing over the seemingly limitless use of such funds. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont plans to use $15 million to provide free admission for children at museums. In states like New Jersey and Washington, governors are set to distribute tens of millions of dollars in federal relief to undocumented immigrants. However, these proposals can be defended as supporting individuals or programs impacted by the pandemic in targeted ways.

Under DeWine’s theory, Ohio could give away hundreds of millions in recovery gifts for its citizens due to the failure of Congress to impose responsible and targeted conditions on the use of such funds. Obviously, such giveaways are enormously popular. Governors like DeWine can play the house in a gambling operation where no one can lose and some become instant millionaires paid for by citizens across the country. And you do not have to pay a thing. Imagine a casino making that pitch.

To make this gambling model complete, the Ohio Lottery Commission will actually assist in giving away federal funds.

Of course, citizens are not allowed the same freedom in using relief funds as states. Recently, the Justice Department charged David T. Hines, 29, of Miami, Florida, after he allegedly used Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans in part to buy a 2020 Lamborghini Huracan sports car for approximately $318,000. That is outrageous. Yet, his governor can, according to DeWine, just give Hines one million dollars to buy three Lamborghinis and have money left over for a new garage to house them.

Why stop there? Next Ohio could offer winners double or nothing on the million if they take the second dose.

DeWine is not the only figure gaming state or federal systems of relief funds. In San Francisco, teachers have opposed reopening schools full-time despite long-standing and overwhelming evidence that such resumption of in-person classes is low-risk for teachers and highly beneficial for the students.

However, San Francisco Unified teachers offered to let high school seniors return to school before school ends -- for one day. By allowing for "in-person supervision" for one day, the schools could grab an additional $12 million under the state incentive program. Groups of students would simply be observed by teachers as they engage in such things as activities that might include “end of high school conversations.”

Since the California legislature did not set a minimum time or require actual instruction, the union suggested an openly fraudulent means to taking the money that did not require teachers to actually teach in person.

DeWine's giveaway comes at a time when states are struggling to spend the massive relief funds giving to them in the last relief package.

This problem will only grow as the White House pushes an equally ill-defined infrastructure bill with over two trillion in new spending. Democratic leaders are arguing that "infrastructure" includes a limitless array of social programs. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) tweeted, “Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.”

If Ohio residents are lucky, they may soon be scratching off numbers to see if they win their Megabucks Infrastructure Prizes. Ohio knows that it could not offer to pay citizens to take the vaccine without incurring high political and financial costs. Instead, it is using a lottery appeal to dangle the chance to be made an instant millionaire despite the odds being ridiculously low (like most lotteries). However, the most aggrieved citizens are likely those in other states. A barber in Nebraska and a teacher in Maryland will be effectively funding the creation of these millionaires. All to induce people to take advantage of a government program costing trillions and meant to protect their lives.

DeWine has not rolled out the new lottery ads of Ohio but he may want to consider the clip from the movie The Color of Money where Fast Eddie Felson declares “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.” After all, nothing can be sweeter than being a vaccine Megabucks winner.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio lottery for getting the vaccine makes no sense