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N.C. House Democrats Delay Lottery Referendum

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RALEIGH, N.C. — House Democrats delayed a showdown on alottery referendum Wednesday after determining there were not enoughvotes to pass it, sparing Gov. Mike Easley a major defeat.

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

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

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

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

One of them was Rep. Junior Teague, R-Alamance, who decidedduring a restless night of sleep Tuesday to oppose a referendum. Hehad received about two dozen calls from constituents urging him tovote 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 EastCoast without a lottery. North Carolinians are projected to spendmore 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 budgetproblems worsened and Easley took office last year with a lotteryfor education programs a top priority. Black's shift towardsupporting a referendum also has intensified the debate.

Easley spent last weekend working the phones, urging undecidedlawmakers to vote for a referendum. Franklin Freeman, a chief aideto Easley, said the bill would be voted on before this legislativesession ends.

The governor respects Black's decision and "will continueworking with the Legislature to make sure the citizens have achance to vote on an education lottery," Easley spokesman FredHartman 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 noto the question: "North Carolina should have an EducationLottery."

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

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

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

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

Bill Brooks with the North Carolina Family Policy Council, alottery opponent, said legislators changed their minds after theyrealized the lottery issue was finally up front after months ofposturing.

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

Proponents say that polls show a majority of North Carolinianswants a lottery or at least the chance to vote on one in areferendum. But calls and e-mails to legislators' offices ran8-to-1 against to the lottery, Owens said.

Citizens United Against the Lottery has been making automatedphone calls in districts served by undecided lawmakers. Therecorded message by former Gov. Jim Martin urges residents to calltheir legislators to oppose the lottery, said Chuck Neely, thegroup's leader.

"The opponents to the lottery are better organized," Owenssaid, adding that legislators are "feeling that their constituentsare against the lottery."

The debate has been drawn more along party lines in recentweeks, with Democrats getting behind a referendum in part to boostvoter turnout in November to help them keep control of the Houseand Senate.

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