Local News

N.C. House Democrats Delay Lottery Referendum

Posted July 10, 2002 5:45 a.m. EDT

— House Democrats delayed a showdown on a lottery referendum Wednesday after determining there were not enough votes to pass it, sparing Gov. Mike Easley a major defeat.

Speaker Jim Black said he delayed a floor vote after hearing from about 12 legislators from both political parties.

"Members are saying they want more time," Black said after the afternoon House session. "I respect the requests of my members."

A vote could be held Thursday but appeared unlikely. Black denied the lottery bill - a key pillar of Easley's education agenda - was dead.

Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, the chief lottery advocate in the House, said pro-lottery forces were still about three or four votes shy of passing the bill. A couple of yes votes gained Monday were lost by Wednesday when others changed their minds and voted no, he said.

One of them was Rep. Junior Teague, R-Alamance, who decided during a restless night of sleep Tuesday to oppose a referendum. He had received about two dozen calls from constituents urging him to vote no.

On Wednesday, Teague called three preachers about his decision. "They said they had been praying for me to change my mind," Teague said.

North Carolina is one of 12 states and the only one on the East Coast without a lottery. North Carolinians are projected to spend more than $200 million this year on lottery tickets in Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina, according to one study.

Interest has grown in a state-run numbers game as budget problems worsened and Easley took office last year with a lottery for education programs a top priority. Black's shift toward supporting a referendum also has intensified the debate.

Easley spent last weekend working the phones, urging undecided lawmakers to vote for a referendum. Franklin Freeman, a chief aide to Easley, said the bill would be voted on before this legislative session ends.

The governor respects Black's decision and "will continue working with the Legislature to make sure the citizens have a chance to vote on an education lottery," Easley spokesman Fred Hartman said.

Before talk of the lottery made it to the legislative building, it was the main course at a breakfast in Durham Wednesday morning.

The Durham Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum on the lottery in North Carolina. The panel of experts debated the pluses and minuses of the lottery including its socio-economic impact on the state.

The proposed legislation asks voters Nov. 5 to check yes or no to the question: "North Carolina should have an Education Lottery."

Easley wants a lottery to expand programs to reduce class sizes in the early grades and for the More at Four pre-kindergarten programs. Estimates have a North Carolina lottery generating between $250 million and $400 million in net proceeds annually.

Interest in a lottery in North Carolina also has grown as South Carolina started a game, leaving Tennessee - which has a referendum on its November ballot - as the only neighboring state without one. It's time residents stop paying for the education of children in other states, Easley has said.

After being urged on by Easley and Black, a House committee Tuesday narrowly approved the referendum. If approved by the full House, the Senate would still have to vote on the referendum.

Whatever the results of the November question, the General Assembly would still have to approve a game for it to become reality, possibly next year. Anti-lottery forces also say a lottery referendum is unlawful and have threatened a lawsuit to block it.

Bill Brooks with the North Carolina Family Policy Council, a lottery opponent, said legislators changed their minds after they realized the lottery issue was finally up front after months of posturing.

"A lot of people woke up and saw the bill was moving," Brooks said.

Proponents say that polls show a majority of North Carolinians wants a lottery or at least the chance to vote on one in a referendum. But calls and e-mails to legislators' offices ran 8-to-1 against to the lottery, Owens said.

Citizens United Against the Lottery has been making automated phone calls in districts served by undecided lawmakers. The recorded message by former Gov. Jim Martin urges residents to call their legislators to oppose the lottery, said Chuck Neely, the group's leader.

"The opponents to the lottery are better organized," Owens said, adding that legislators are "feeling that their constituents are against the lottery."

The debate has been drawn more along party lines in recent weeks, with Democrats getting behind a referendum in part to boost voter turnout in November to help them keep control of the House and Senate.

"To me, this is not a political issue," said Owens, who has filed lottery bills for six consecutive years. "It's about letting the people of North Carolina have a choice."