So a guy walks into a gas station, buys a scratch-off, wins a few bucks, gets distracted with some fool thing and eventually puts the lucky ticket through the wash in his Wranglers. It happens. No big deal.
But for state lawmakers in a tough budget year nationwide, the unclaimed prizes are adding up to a tempting pot of cash.
"It's something we've seen an increased interest in this year," said Jon Griffin, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington.
Around the world, some staggeringly huge jackpots have gone unclaimed in recent years, drawing lots of headlines and more than a few schemes. In 2011, a $77 million Powerball winner let the 180-day deadline expire in Georgia. In California last year, a woman claimed her $23 million prize only after state officials put on a five-month publicity campaign to find the missing winner. In Illinois, officials are still searching for the holder of a $1 million ticket set to expire March 17. And in Britain, seven prizes worth $1.3 million each are set to expire between March and July.
After the prize deadlines lapse — usually within a year, sometimes in as few as 90 days — lottery commissions generally put the money toward future prizes or general state revenues.
In Albany, for example, a New York Senate committee is considering a proposal to transfer unclaimed prizes to a summer reading program known as the Love Your Library Fund.
In Wyoming, where lawmakers are trying to start a new state lottery agency, the unclaimed prize money has become the subject of an intricate power squabble. Members have been shading the prize legislation to change which agencies controlled the money and whose pet causes would benefit, from gambling addiction programs to assorted social needs and maladies.
Here in Texas, where even a big oil boom has not quite rescued the budget from troubles including a $4.7 billion debt to Medicaid, the unclaimed jackpot money seems to fit that name less and less every year.
Over the past decade, the amount has been going up, peaking at $86 million in 2010.