Lottery vote draws near

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 2, 2005

RALEIGH – North Carolinians eager for a lottery in the Tar Heel State are scrambling to find their lucky charms in advance of a vote expected soon in the state House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, lottery opponents are hoping that this particular effort will end in failure, just as similar proposals have done in years past.

According to local legislator Howard Hunter Jr. (D-Hertford) of Winton, an &uot;up-or-down&uot; vote on a lottery may come on the House floor as early as next week, but he expects it’s still two weeks away.

Hunter said that with the state facing a projected budget shortfall of $1.2 billion, legislators would either have to increase taxes or find new sources of revenue to help fund education.

&uot;Raising taxes to pay for education or other programs must be a last option,&uot; Hunter said. &uot;With that said, I believe the time has come to create a lottery in North Carolina.&uot;

Hunter pointed to another reason he would agree with a lottery.

&uot;I’ve never been a strong supporter of a lottery, but North Carolinians are sending more than $300 million each year to our four neighbors (Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia) to play the lotteries in those states. Because the lotteries in those states fund education, we are helping to pay to educate their children. We must keep that money in North Carolina for our children and their education. I believe the legislators must do what it takes to keep that money at home.&uot;

Fellow local legislator Michael Wray (D-Northampton) of Gaston agreed.

&uot;We have to be open-minded about this,&uot; Wray said. &uot;We need to address our educational needs, but that takes money…money we don’t have because of the major shortfalls in our budget. If we don’t address this issue now, we’ll be left with only an option to make deep cuts in the budget, cuts people aren’t going to like.&uot;

Previous attempts to bring the lottery to North Carolina have failed before reaching a vote on the House floor. There was some legislative maneuvering to place the measure before the state’s voters in a special referendum, but lottery opponents say such an effort is unconstitutional because North Carolina’s constitution doesn’t allow for such votes. Those foes say the fate of a lottery lies in the hands of the legislators, not the voters.

Gov. Mike Easley, who has long favored a lottery, said it could help pay for needed education programs. The Governor’s staff estimates the lottery would raise $450 million to $500 million a year for the state.

Earlier this week, House Speaker Jim Black (D-Mecklenburg) announced the formation of a special committee that will produce legislation to create a lottery from where the proceeds will help fund education. Rep. Bill Culpepper (D-Chowan) from Edenton is the chairman of that 16-member committee.

&uot;Some critics of the lottery say that gambling is a sin,&uot; Hunter said. &uot;Well, I’m not an advocate of gambling, but I believe that not providing our children with the best possible education in safe schools and not in cramped trailers is a much bigger sin.&uot;

Hunter stressed that lottery proceeds should only be dedicated to providing additional funding for education.

&uot;This is not about replacing what we already spend for education nor is this about paying for the advertising in an attempt to lure people into believing that they have a better chance of winning jackpots,&uot; he noted.

Apparently, North Carolinians are in support of a lottery. A recent poll conducted by Elon University found that 69 percent favor a lottery. Among those surveyed, 37 percent said they had bought a lottery ticket in a neighboring state in the past year.

Meanwhile, lottery opponents are lining up for a fight. They contend that low-income people play lotteries more heavily and that advertising often deceives players about the odds of winning.

On Wednesday, lottery foes gathered at the Legislative Building in Raleigh to voice their opposition. One of their main arguments is that a lottery would lead to less spending by counties on education as well as less support from voters for bond referendums to support schools. In addition, the opponents say that the state will not be able to count on the lottery money from year to year because it fluctuates with playing habits.

The lottery issue resurfaced following the November elections. Several ideas were discussed in the General Assembly, one being a &uot;local-option lottery.&uot; Under that proposal, county commissioners could call for a vote on a lottery. If voters in at least 25 counties cast ballots in favor of a lottery, the state would begin operating the games and selling tickets in those counties.

However, Speaker Black doesn’t think that proposal will be considered on the House floor because he wants an &uot;up-or-down&uot; vote.

North Carolina is the only state on the East Coast without a lottery and only one of just 10 states nationwide without a numbers game or scratch-off tickets of chance.