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Sweepstakes regulation isn't dead yet


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 22, 1998

Florida's only program for regulating sweepstakes, killed by state lawmakers, may be resurrected.

Broken Dreams: the sweepstakes hype from the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.
Secretary of State Sandra Mortham wants state Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker Daniel Webster to approve a budget amendment so her agency can resume registering sweepstakes.

The Division of Licensing quietly halted its modest registration program July 1, because lawmakers this year cut the program's $30,000 budget.

Mortham's request followed a Times report on the program's demise. Though the program provided the Division of Licensing no authority to crack down on or reject questionable sweepstakes promotions, the budget cut left the state with no mechanism for monitoring who is running sweepstakes offers in Florida.

"Please understand that this strategy is only a stopgap measure to continue a program that we recognize is inadequate," Mortham wrote Jennings and Webster in a letter dated July 17. "However, with limited options at hand, the current program is better than nothing."

Neither Webster nor Jennings could be reached for comment on Mortham's request Tuesday.

Sweepstakes became a high-profile consumer issue this year amid stories of elderly people flying to Tampa, thinking they were winners of American Family Publishers sweepstakes. The entries are processed in Tampa. Several bills aimed at curbing misleading promotions died during the spring legislative session, however, amid heavy opposition from the industry.

The issue is sure to return, as the state House is studying sweepstakes issues in preparation for the 1999 legislative session.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to use some of the information they're gathering in this interim project to come back to the Legislature next year with a viable legislative proposal for sweepstakes regulation," said state Rep. Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota, who sponsored a consumer-oriented sweepstakes bill this year.

The registration program was killed by a budget conference committee, though lawmakers and state officials could not say how it happened.

Early last summer, the Secretary of State's office recommended the program be eliminated because it did little to protect consumers, and its demise would save game promoters $1.7-million in registration fees over five years.

But after sweepstakes became controversial, agency officials said they assumed the registration program would remain intact and that lawmakers might approve tighter regulations.

Neither happened. When news spread that the state had killed its only program monitoring sweepstakes promotions, agency officials decided a weak program is better than no program.

Department of State spokesman David Bishop said the department would find the money in its budget to continue the program, but the change needs approval from Webster and Jennings.

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