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Lottery Supporters Wonder What to Do Next After Defeat

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Pro-lottery advocates licked their wounds and looked ahead as the House defeated a bill that would have allowed a referendum on the issue in the Nov. 5 election.

In a historic vote

that gave Gov. Mike Easley his first major defeat, 14 Democrats joined most Republicans on Tuesday in voting against adding the lottery question to the ballot.

The relatively wide vote of 69-50 against the referendum caught people on both sides of the issue off-guard. For the past few months, lobbyists and lawmakers said the margin was only a few votes.

``I was surprised at that count,'' said Gardner Payne with the North Carolina Lottery for Education Coalition. ``We're going to have to take a step back in the process.''

House Speaker Jim Black said after the vote that the lottery issue was dead for the rest of the year. Payne said his organization had yet to decide whether to campaign against some anti-lottery legislators in November.

A top lottery opponent hopes the vote will put aside the question for good. The House hadn't cast a floor vote on any lottery legislation for at least two decades.

``I think this body needed to deal with the issue and get on and move on to other things,'' said Chuck Neely, chairman of Citizens United Against the Lottery. ``I think as much as anything, they needed to say, 'Where are we going to stand on this issue?' so they can move on to other issues.''

Easley and Black criticized Tuesday's outcome.

``It is unbelievable that the Legislature would deny the people of this state the right to vote on a lottery,'' Easley said.

Black, D-Mecklenburg, accused state Republican leaders of strong-arming lawmakers to vote against any lottery legislation, bringing more gridlock to the longest legislative session on record.

``This is the way the whole session has gone,'' Black said. ``The best way, they figure, to come out was to not to agree to anything, to make it look like the Democrats can't do anything.''

House Minority Leader Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, said if there was any pressure placed on legislators, it was from the Democrat Easley, who called legislators off and on for months asking for support.

North Carolina is one of 12 states without a lottery - the only one on the East Coast - but residents have been playing the numbers game for more than a decade in surrounding states.

Lottery supporters pushed the referendum this week as time wound down to get it on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The nonbinding referendum would have asked voters to check yes or no to the question of whether to have an ``Education Lottery.'' The proceeds would go to programs to help at-risk 4-year-olds and to reduce class sizes, the question read.

The General Assembly still would have had to approve a lottery game for it to become a reality.

During Tuesday's 2-1/2-hour debate, opponents said running a lottery sends a bad signal to residents that the state supports gambling. The lottery also is an unreliable source of revenue, preys on the poor and creates compulsive gamblers, they said.

``People should look to us to encourage them to do things that are good for them, not to encourage them to throw their money down a rathole,'' said Rep. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

Pro-lottery lawmakers said state residents are educating children in other states through the games' proceeds. They said polls show a majority of North Carolinians support a referendum and it's time to let them have a choice.

``I see a lot of downsides with a lottery and gambling,'' said Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, a key lottery proponent. ``I also think there's a downside to have $250 million slide out of our state to other states to educate their kids.''

South Carolina started its lottery this year, leaving Tennessee - which has a referendum on its November ballot - as the only neighboring state without one.

House Democratic leaders rolled out a compromise $14.3 billion budget proposal Monday night that would have included a lottery referendum. But Black decided on Tuesday to separate the referendum from the budget, which returned to a negotiating committee.

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