Even more lottery lunacy

By: - March 29, 2005 10:16 pm

Here we go again. The lottery keeps getting more and more troubling. Not just the issue itself, but the way it is being handled in the House. The House Select Committee on the lottery held its first meeting Tuesday afternoon. Orchestrated press event would be more like it.

Speaker Jim Black appointed the committee Monday night with the assignment of putting together a lottery bill for the full House to consider.

Traditionally the legislative process includes the introduction of a bill, its consideration by a committee that includes testimony from experts, people with experience from other states, interest groups on both sides of the issues, and maybe even members of the general public. Imagine that.

Then the committee debates the issue, offers amendments to change it and votes it up or down. If it passes the committee, it goes to the House floor for consideration. That’s the way students in North Carolina schools learn that the legislative process works. The General Assembly even has a diagram illustrating all that for visitors to the legislative building.

Forget that diagram and the traditional legislative process. The lottery committee is made up only of lottery supporters from both parties, guaranteeing that the committee will pass a version of the lottery.

It also appears likely that there will be no testimony from people outside the committee, no experts, no one from other states, no citizens who support it or oppose it. This is the lottery after all, a massive shift in state policy, so there is no room for actual thoughtful debate and comment, no room for democracy.

Tuesday, the committee heard explanations of the lottery bills that have been introduced. Black and the House leadership team will spend the next couple of weeks trying to convince lawmakers to vote for it, adjusting the proposal by changing how lottery proceeds are spent as much as they have to get 61 members of the House to vote for it.

Black is upfront about the process, saying that there is no need for much debate, that everyone already knows how they feel about the issue. But Black knows better.

He and other lottery supporters also know that an open, honest lottery debate has never been held in the General Assembly. There have been public hearings and some testimony about what the lottery could pay for, not how it raises the money.

Having such a discussion one would raise issues that make many lawmakers uncomfortable, the deceptive advertising, the regressivity of the lottery, the unreliability of the revenue and the lessons from other states that education funding often decreases with a lottery in place. A legislative staff member told the committee that there was no way to ensure that lottery money did not simply replace money already spent on schools.

Black and other lottery supporters also know that as much as 40 percent of the members of the General Assembly were not in office when the lottery was last debated, in 2002. That means that almost half of the members of the House and Senate have never heard the even limited debates, never heard any sort of testimony from anyone.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, each member was asked where they wanted lottery proceeds to go, to pretend they have a $400 million gift certificate. All said education, most emphasizing school construction, giving them an opportunity with the cameras rolling to declare their support for improving schools.

The people deserve more than that, those who support the lottery and those who don’t.
The law firm lobbying for a lottery company gave each legislator a fact sheet before Tuesday’s. Somebody needs to give them a copy of that diagram about the how the legislative process is supposed to work.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066