Final odds against lottery

By: - August 15, 2005 5:44 am

Raleigh News & Observer
Curious left-right coalition prevails; Democratic leaders say they’ll try again


The 22-year fight over whether North Carolina should have a lottery came down Saturday to one man: Harry Brown, a 50-year-old car dealer from Jacksonville and a rookie Republican legislator.

Lottery supporters needed a single vote in the Senate and thought Brown — one of the few Republicans open to a lottery — was their best shot.

Gov. Mike Easley and Senate leader Marc Basnight, Democrats both, urged him not to refuse a source for hundreds of millions of school dollars. Republicans pleaded with him to keep the state out of the gambling business.

Brown never showed any stress.

"When you are in the car business for 30 years, you learn to handle it," Brown said.

He handled it by sticking with the Republican caucus.

And Democratic leaders, stymied by an odd-bedfellow coalition of Republican conservatives and Democratic liberals, postponed a lottery vote.

Basnight said supporters might try again when the General Assembly returns Aug. 23.

"It’s not over yet," he said.

The Senate went home for a 10-day hiatus so some lawmak- ers could attend a national legislative conference in Seattle and will return for what is expected to be a one-day session. Then the General Assembly will adjourn until May 2006, when it begins a shorter session largely devoted to the budget.

The past week of the legislature was marked by marathon sessions that sometimes lasted past midnight as lawmakers tried to clear a backlog of dozens of bills.

Easley signed the legislature’s chief product, a $17.2 billion budget, into law Saturday. The governor had initially threatened to veto the budget because it included a $150 bonus for all state workers.

During the past several days, the lottery fight overshadowed the budget. Forty-one states have a lottery.

North Carolina might have been closer to joining them than at any time since the first lottery bill was introduced in the General Assembly in 1983.

The Senate lottery bill was expected to raise more than $500 million per year for schools. Half the proceeds were to be used to reduce class sizes in the early grades and help pay for preschool programs; 40 percent was for school construction, and 10 percent for college scholarships.

Strange partners

Despite powerful support from the governor and the Democratic leadership of the state Senate and House, the lottery failed once again because of the continuing left/right coalition.

"The right side is typical of Southern politics," said Andrew Taylor, an N.C. State University political science professor. "It is infused with social conservatism and has a religious tinge and believes gambling is bad and the state should not be promoting it."

But unlike other Southern states, he said, North Carolina also has a progressive tradition inimical to a lottery: "There are people in the Democratic Party who feel it preys on people who are on the low end of the income scale and offers them false hope."

Although Democrats hold a 29-21 majority in the Senate, five Democrats opposed the lottery. Basnight said he did not pressure them to vote the party line — a point confirmed by the so-called Lottery Five.

Others did pressure them, however, including the N.C. Association of Educators, whose members buttonholed the five lawmakers whenever they slipped out of the Senate chambers.

"I’m not going to change my mind," Sen. Janet Cowell of Raleigh told Charlotte Turpin, president of the Wake County chapter.

Turpin said she had spoken to Cowell, a Raleigh Democrat, several times before Saturday. "We understand her personal feelings," Turpin said. But she said she wanted to know how legislators would raise money for school construction without a lottery.

Oh so close

With Democratic opponents dug in deeply, lottery supporters tried to sway one of the 21 Senate Republicans.

Much attention focused on Brown, who said during last fall’s campaign that he could support a lottery if all the proceeds were used for school construction. He said not only were more schools badly needed, but it made sense to use lottery funds for one-time expenses such as construction costs because of the unreliability of lotteries as a revenue source.

"I grew up in Jones County," Brown said. "The junior high and the high school are the same schools that I went to and they were old schools when I went there."

Democrats say they were willing to increase the percentage of the lottery proceeds going to school construction.

Brown said he was never close to an agreement.

Taylor, the political science professor, said this year might be the lottery’s best chance. Easley will soon be a lame duck governor, the legislature might not be Democratic-controlled after 2006, and the recent fiscal pressures on the budget might be easing.

Basnight said the lottery would have passed Friday or Saturday if the Republican Party had not insisted that its members oppose it.

"There was a time last night I thought the vote was there," Basnight said Saturday. "Then it drifted away. It was as close as it has ever been."

Staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or [email protected].

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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