State on the low road.

By: - April 6, 2005 9:45 pm

The House passed a lottery bill Wednesday afternoon in a 61-59 vote. The 90 minute debate was relatively low-key and provided few surprises. Lottery supporters talked about the money the lottery will provide for school construction, college scholarships, and early childhood programs.

Lottery opponents reminded the House that the lottery preys on the poor and teaches the wrong lesson to children, and that there is no guarantee that revenue it provides will not simply replace current education funding.

The real battle was behind the scenes, where the last few days the last few days wavering lawmakers, especially Democrats who opposed the lottery, faced intense pressure from House Speaker Jim Black and Governor Mike Easley.

In the end the pressure tactics worked and the details of the bill didn’t seem to matter. The process guaranteed that, the heavy pressure used to win votes, the way House Speaker Jim Black controlled and cut off the debate, and the vote itself, which changed from the announced 62-58 to 61-59 when Democrat Pricey Harrison changed her vote after the fact from yes to no.

The lottery has failed to pass in North Carolina because of an unusual coalition of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats. That coalition fell apart Wednesday as several of those Democrats changed their position. Reportedly, the change came after an unusually strong personal appeal from Speaker Black, who portrayed the lottery vote as a vote of loyalty, a vote on his leadership and the power of Democrats in the House.

That’s a hard appeal for lawmakers to resist. Black helped many of them get elected, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and funneling it to the campaigns of individual lawmakers, some of whom he helped recruit to run for office.

Power in the House has never been as concentrated as it is now in the Speaker’s office and that power passed the lottery, convincing lawmakers with philosophical objections to the lottery to support it anyway,

Black made it easier by ignoring obvious objections to holding the final House vote on the lottery on Wednesday. Traditionally, bills are held over to the next day for final approval if a legislator objects to the call for the final vote. Black ignored the chorus of voices that objected, and held a voice vote giving the lottery its final House approval.

The limited debate did provide a bizarre contradiction. Anti-tax legislators who often propose cutting programs that help the poor complained that the lottery exploits the state’s poorest citizens.

Many traditional supporters of expanding human service programs ignored the arguments that the lottery is a regressive way to raise money, the hard evidence that shows the poor spend more on lottery tickets than the middle class.

Now it is up to the Senate to save the state from this disastrous public policy. The vote there will also be close, especially after Senators read the fine print of the House plan.

One of the provisions exempts the lottery commission from all the state’s anti-gambling laws, theoretically making it possible for the commission to weaken video poker laws or begin raising money with slot machines, or casino gambling.

If political leaders are willing to exploit the poor to avoid making tough decisions about raising money, might as well exploit them in as many ways as possible.

Quite the high road the state is on the verge of taking.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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