Lottery debate continues

By: - July 3, 2005 9:27 am

Winston-Salem Journal
Some fear gambling issues; others focus on education revenue THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


It’s a sure bet that if North Carolina becomes the final state on the East Coast to offer a lottery, supporters say, legislators will have hundreds of millions of new dollars to spend every year on education.

But just as certain, opponents argue, is that as revenues rise, so will the number of North Carolinians addicted to gambling.

"The lottery will hurt a lot of people. It’s a tax on the poor. It affects families," said Tom Spampinato of Cary, who spent 22 years battling a gambling addiction. He is now the interim director of the state chapter of Gamblers Anonymous.

"It’s just another avenue, another thing that will cause people to gamble,"Spampinato said. "It’s not an effective way to raise money. It is an effective way to get people into trouble."

But that’s a risk worth taking, according to supporters who say that the revenue a lottery would provide to the state budget outweighs the potential social costs. The numbers game legislators are considering would generate an estimated $400 million to $450 million annually. Competing proposals earmark revenues for such items as school construction, college scholarships or an "education enhancement fund."

And it’s not the same as a casino, an important distinction for some.

"A casino tends to be an amusement location, whereas a lottery is kind of a daily or weekly or episodic purchase," said Ferrel Guillory, the director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "People tend to think of them differently."

For years, the difference between cashing in chips at the craps table and buying a lottery ticket along with a tank of gas at the convenience store hasn’t been enough to overcome the state’s resistance to a lottery.

North Carolina is the largest of the 10 states nationwide that don’t have some kind of government-run gambling.

An alliance of liberals and conservatives, making the familiar anti-gambling argument that lotteries place a disproportionate financial burden on the poor and can lead to financial strains in families, have successfully limited the only form of gambling in the state to restrictive video-based games at a single American Indian casino, as well as some convenience stores and similar locations.

The strength of the economy has also kept back attempts to start a lottery. But the decline of the state’s once-strong textiles, tobacco and manufacturing industries have helped create significant budget shortfalls. And since he was first elected in 2000, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley has adamantly promoted a lottery.

His lobbying has gradually weakened legislators’ resistance. House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, began endorsing a lottery this session after years of indifference.

This year, the Senate’s proposed budget included conditional language about how to spend proceeds from a lottery if one were approved. The separate bill that would actually create the lottery was passed by the House on April 6 – with two votes to spare – and now awaits Senate action.

Targeting the lottery’s proceeds for education, rather than adding the profits to the general fund for unspecified uses, has helped Easley and other staunch supporters make a final push.

That’s the argument supporters in Georgia used to pass that state’s lottery in 1992, and that success has provided political cover for fellow state leaders looking for ways to generate revenue without raising taxes, Guillory said.

"Georgia taught us that you could dedicate it and make it stick," Guillory said. "That’s basically what Easley’s arguing here, that he’s going to follow the Georgia model."

And tapping regional rivalries doesn’t hurt. Supporters in North Carolina say a lottery would capture the millions of dollars spent by its citizens on lotteries in Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

But joining that crowd, said Charles Clotfelter, a professor of economics and law at Duke University who has studied lotteries, "might undercut the moral authority of the state" by hurting the 1 percent to 2 percent of the general population that’s addicted to gambling.

Supporters in the state Legislature have pledged to use some lottery proceeds to assist problem gamblers, but that’s not much consolation to those who work with gambling addicts.

"It’s going to be bad news for problem gamblers," Clotfelter said. "The key for these people is just the availability. It makes it too easy to do."

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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