Editorial: Once opposed, N.C. senators now tout lottery

The Observer editorial board

Lottery options have multiplied, and will likely continue to do so as legislators scour for money for basic needs.
Lottery options have multiplied, and will likely continue to do so as legislators scour for money for basic needs. AP

It was 10 years ago this Sunday that the North Carolina Senate created a state lottery despite the opposition of all 21 Republican members.

How quickly sentiment changes. Now Senate Republicans want to dramatically expand the games their party once opposed.

In August 2005, Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Democrat, announced there would be no more substantive votes before the legislative session ended. Then two Republicans left Raleigh, giving Basnight the crack he needed. He rushed senators into session. They voted 24-24, and then-Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, broke the tie.

Republicans howled over the trickery. They had argued that gambling is immoral, and that the lottery profits might supplant money spent on education rather than add to it.

One of those who said he was blindsided by the move? None other than Sen. Harry Brown. He opposed the lottery, but was on his honeymoon when the vote was cast. Now Brown is among those leading an effort to create more state-sponsored gambling and spend more to market it.

The day the lottery passed, the Observer editorial board wrote this: “Once North Carolina’s lottery gets under way, the state will find, as all others have, that public interest declines in time and so will revenues. To boost them, the state will have to become a carnival barker, aggressively enticing citizens to make sucker bets in order to keep the cash flowing. It won’t be a pretty sight.”

And here we are. The carnival barkers are out, and it’s not pretty. The Senate included in its budget an increase of about 50 percent for lottery advertising. North Carolinians are now able to play the games while they pump gas. And the Senate backs an array of new options, including letting people play instant winner (instant loser?) games on their computers and smartphones. Video gaming terminals could pop up across the state in restaurants, bars and other public places. While legislators have worked to rid the state of the video sweepstakes industry, they are OK with the state sponsoring a video lottery industry.

It’s bad public policy. The original plan called for 50 percent of lottery revenues to be spent on prizes and 35 percent on education. The reality now is 62 percent on prizes and 26 percent on education. And the Republicans of 2005 were right: The money for education supplants other funding rather than augmenting it.

Republican Rep. Skip Stam rightly calls the lottery push “a deceitful way to raise taxes.” And studies show it will be paid by those least able to afford it. Per capita spending on the lottery is generally highest in North Carolina’s poorest counties. (In Halifax County, one of the state’s poorest, lottery sales last year amounted to $468 for each man, woman and child.)

After cutting taxes left and right, legislators find themselves without enough money to pay for teacher assistants and other basics. Unwilling to craft a fair, visionary tax code, they instead grasp for straws, like encouraging ever-more payments from the mathematically challenged.