cash.jpgTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ While Florida leaders remain divided over the future of gambling in the state, there's one game that keeps growing and growing.

The Florida Lottery this week wrapped up the most financially successful year in its 24-year history of selling tickets. The state-created lottery boosted its sales to $4.45 billion, an increase of more than $440 million over the previous fiscal year.

The booming sales show that the lottery has recovered from the recession and had led the top official who runs it to dream of eventually turning the Lottery into a $5 billion-a-year enterprise.

“It's a great thing we can grow this,'' said Florida Lottery Secretary Cynthia O'Connell.

State officials estimate that the increased sales will result in $1.31 billion going to schools and to pay for programs such as the state's Bright Futures scholarship.

A key to the increased sales was the popularity of scratch-off tickets. Lottery officials this past year introduced nearly 50 new scratch-off games and aggressively marketed them. Last year, Florida Lottery officials also went along with a proposal to revamp Powerball, the game available in more than 40 states. The changes resulted in higher ticket prices, but it also led to larger starting jackpots.

In October, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, agreed to end its long-standing refusal to sell lottery tickets in its U.S. stores after reaching a deal with the Florida Lottery. The retailer began a pilot program at more than two dozen neighborhood markets that stretch across central, southwest and South Florida.

Florida voters first approved the lottery in 1986 and tickets went on sale in early 1988. Sales peaked at $4.2 billion back in 2008 but dropped as the state's economy soured.

The role of the Florida Lottery came under fire from some GOP legislators this year when lawmakers were considering legislation that would have authorized the creation of mega-casinos in South Florida.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and a sponsor of the casino bill, called the lottery a form of “predatory'' gambling that preys on the poor. She initially discussed revamping oversight of the lottery as part of her legislation. In the end, however, lawmakers did not approve the casino bill – and they were divided whether to regulate or ban sweepstakes operations called Internet cafes that have been labeled storefront casinos.

Legislators also went along with recommendations from O'Connell and Gov. Rick Scott to expand lottery operations in the coming year, including the installation of 350 so-called “full service'' vending machines that sell both instant tickets and tickets from games such as Powerball or Lotto. The Florida Lottery also got permission to spend an additional $4 million in the coming year on advertising.