State budget shows lottery unnecessary

By: - August 18, 2005 5:09 am

Hendersonville Times News

The North Carolina Legislature didn’t distinguish itself in this year’s session, with its three overtimes and six-week tardiness in passing a budget, but perhaps its most notable achievement is what it didn’t do. It failed to pass a state lottery.

All but the last nail has been driven into this very bad idea, for this session and, we hope, for many years to come.

True, the last dying gasp of the session is not till next week. But legislative supporters of a state lottery lost the momentum for the bill — and their main means of rewarding recalcitrant fence-sitters — when they let the budget pass.

Since no one ever argues that state-run gambling is a good idea on the merits, it is always sold as the answer to an unmet immediate need or a financial crisis, usually in something that really is important, like education.

We stand second to no one in advocating state spending on public schools, not just for funding current enrollment but for reaching for higher quality through smaller class sizes, more foreign language instruction and early school for at-risk children. But Gov. Mike Easley and the other progressive leaders who also support those things should find cuts elsewhere to make it happen or raise an honest tax.

Two months ago, prospects for the lottery looked better than winning a couple of bucks on a fistful of scratch-off cards.

The lottery, with the strong support of the governor, had passed in the state House by two votes and awaited a vote in the Senate, which had historically supported the idea.

But when the Legislature enacted the budget and sputtered to a close Thursday night, the lottery count stood at 24-26. The entire Republican caucus and five liberal Democrats held stubbornly against pressure from Easley and Senate Leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare County.

"The polls say there’s a lot of public support for the lottery," Ferrel Guillory, who heads the program on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina, told the Associated Press. "But within the policymaking and opinion making, the lottery is opposed from both the right and the left."

It’s too bad that his focus on the lottery actually detracts from Easley’s legitimate claim as a strong education governor. Even in the economic downturn of 2000 through 2004, Easley insisted on funding enrollment growth, expanding his More at Four program and reducing class sizes.

Proceeds from the lottery would go toward school construction, college scholarships for low-income students, and Easley’s initiatives to reduce class sizes and prepare 4-year-olds for kindergarten.

These are worthy goals, and they’re no less worthy if they require the courage to raise a real tax or identify painful spending cuts somewhere else. Many Republican opponents of the lottery, without offering specifics, say they would instead reduce fat in the state education bureaucracy.

Always independent, and also progressive on education, North Carolinians should be proud that we remain the only state on the East Coast free of this moral blight.

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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