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N. Carolina feeling heat to add lottery

Plans would aid schools but face uphill battles

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Along the Virginia line, in gas stations, convenience stores and gift shops, the neon "VIRGINIA LOTTERY" signs shine the way for North Carolina motorists looking for their numbers to come in.

Many come to the Border Station store, straddling the border between the two states, and head to the Virginia side and its Lotto kiosks and lottery-card machines. But some say they would rather be playing back home.

"We're only making Virginia richer," said Stanley Stiles, a welder from South Mills, N.C., eight miles from the border, who once won $65,000 in the Virginia Pick 4 game.

North Carolina, the only state on the East Coast without a lottery or plans for one, is facing increasing pressure to get in the game.

With an $800 million budget shortfall, new Gov. Mike Easley is telling lawmakers a lottery may be the only way to finance court-ordered education reforms and school improvements he has proposed.

"You can't just say 'No, we're against a lottery,' " Easley said in his State of the State address.

"Finish the sentence — tell me what you're for. Because next year 100,000 5-year-olds will show up at the schoolhouse door and they deserve more than an overcrowded classroom and an overworked teacher."

Easley made a lottery-for-education plan a key element of his campaign. And he irritated opponents this month with a 2002-2003 budget plan that included a yet-to-be-approved lottery generating $300 million.

Opponents — a coalition of conservative Christians and progressive Democrats — have beaten lottery bills over the past two decades. They say North Carolina shouldn't get into the business even though it's one of just 13 states without a lottery.

"Personally, I don't think that a lottery is in the best interests of the state," said state Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Democrat from suburban Raleigh. "People who come here from other states tell me that once you've got it, it's hard to get rid of it."

Easley said North Carolina residents spent $98 million in Virginia and $10 million in Georgia last year on lotteries. Fellow border state South Carolina just approved a lottery, and Tennesseeans will vote on one in 2002.

Easley wants some lottery proceeds to be dedicated to reducing elementary school class size. A local judge also has ruled the state constitution requires pre-kindergarten schooling for at-risk 4-year-olds, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some opponents say they're concerned about gambling addiction and the possibility that some poor people would spend a disproportionate share of their incomes trying to strike it rich.

They also contend the lottery is an inefficient method of raising money and ultimately replaces other government revenues rather than supplementing them.

"Lottery revenues are predicated on the losses, pain and suffering of our neighbor," said the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina.

Lottery opponents include the Rev. Billy Graham, Bank of America chief executive Hugh McColl, three ex-governors and Bill Friday, the former president of the state university system.

Two lottery referendum bills have been filed in the House.

Pro-lottery lawmakers say legislators should pass a referendum bill so that citizens can decide for themselves whether they want a lottery. Polls have consistently shown a majority of voters would support a lottery if it were placed on the ballot.

A pro-lottery group has been formed but has yet to announce its biggest backers. It's unclear whether that will include the state teachers' association.

"The lottery not only generates income for the state, but it's a voluntary thing," said Ballard Everett, coordinator of North Carolinians for the Lottery. "You can play if you want."

At Border Station, up to one-fourth of co-owner Russell Hastings' business comes from lottery sales. He gets 5 cents from every dollar spent on most lottery tickets. Still, the North Carolina native understands opponents' concerns.

"I was raised in the Baptist church. They're very much against gambling," Hastings said. "I've questioned my conscience a lot.

But, he said, "it's money."