A nagging question about the ‘education' lottery

It's the oldest and most predictable worry about a state lottery to support education: Is there any way to guarantee that income from a lottery will provide additional financial support for state schools? Or will it begin to replace what the state traditionally provides for public schools?

We don't know the full answer yet. But we do know from studies in other states that over time, lottery revenue supplants state support for schools in significant ways, rather than supplementing it. In some states, overall education funding doesn't even increase.

And now we also know that the state commission charged with overseeing the lottery's impact on North Carolina is concerned about it, too.

As the Observer's David Ingram reported recently, members of the N.C. Lottery Oversight Committee are worried that lottery money already has replaced education funding from other state sources.

“It appears that there is a substantial degree of supplanting and not 100 percent supplementing,” said Myron Coulter, co-chair of the committee and former chancellor of Western Carolina University.

This is hardly surprising, given that it happens elsewhere and that legislators concerned about an ever-expanding list of needs feel pressed to trim taxpayer funding for any program where there is an alternative source of income.

The N.C. Education Lottery was approved in 2005 after some political chicanery in the state Senate led members to believe a vote would not be taken. Some members were absent on the day the lottery passed. Even then, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue had to break a tie vote to approve it.

One selling point for the lottery is that state officials would make sure lottery revenue didn't replace existing school funding. That's hard to do, of course, but it's worth trying. We agree with Lt. Gov. Perdue that there needs to be an effective way to assure that the lottery provides extra money for schools.

It's also time to reassess the use of lottery money. Under existing law, lottery funds are to be used for reducing class sizes and preschool programs, financing college scholarships and school construction. While each of those is a worthy use of money, dividing it among several programs reduces its overall impact.

That's why we've long believed that if North Carolina must have a lottery, it ought to focus all the income on nonrecurring expenditures, such as building new classrooms and other facilities. Depending on the whims of lottery players for a portion of all-important operating funds for schools makes no sense.