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State House Takes Gamble With Lottery Bill Approval

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina House of Representatives has

voted 61-59

in favor of a bill that would create a state lottery.

House Bill 1023

approved by the full House would divvy up the funds from a lottery into three areas: 50 percent would go to school construction, 25 percent would go to college scholarships and 25 percent would go to special programs for education in the state.

"I commend Speaker Black and the House for their leadership in bringing this important issue to debate and deliberation," said Gov. Mike Easley in a written statement. "I look forward to working with the Senate to provide a dedicated source of revenue for school children across our state. An education lottery in North Carolina will give us additional resources to continue to improve our schools and increase educational opportunities pre-k through college."

The bill would also ban lottery advertising anywhere except the sites where the tickets are sold.

Democratic Gov. Mike Easley has been pushing a lottery for education needs since taking office in 2001. House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, and his lieutenants pushed a bill through a lottery committee earlier in the day.

Though past lottery proposals met their demise in the House, supporters finally persuaded enough lawmakers worried about education funding - and a projected $1 billion state spending shortfall this coming budget year - to come to their side.

"I'm not so passionate about a lottery, but I am passionate about education," Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, said during an hour-long debate that preceded a swift floor vote.

Despite objections from the floor, Black pushed through a second-required voice vote immediately after the roll-call vote.

The measure was sent to the Senate for consideration. The Senate historically has favored a lottery but hasn't voted on a bill in a decade.

With Black still on speaker's podium, Easley called the speaker on his cell phone immediately after the session to congratulate him.

In a statement, Easley said he looked forward to working with the Senate.

"An education lottery in North Carolina will give us additional resources to continue to improve our schools and increase educational opportunities pre-K through college," Easley said.

Seven Republicans joined 54 Democrats in voting for the bill.

Supporters have said a lottery can be up and running in North Carolina within six months, and movement on Wednesday's bill was unusually swift for a body that often takes months to bring divisive measures to the floor.

Black, long opposed to a lottery, announced last month that he now supported one for the sake of recapturing money being spent on other states' games. He named a special committee of lottery supporters to bring a measure to the House floor without any divisive debate.

Lottery supporters have said that with new games started in Tennessee and South Carolina in recent years, North Carolinians now spend $300 million a year on neighboring states' lotteries.

"Frankly, I don't even like the lottery," Black told reporters after the vote. "If I could convince enough people to fund education a better way than I'd convince them to do that."

Opponents countered that the lottery's results will not match supporters' rosy predictions, warning it will create addicted gamblers, disproportionately harm the poor and won't generate the expected profits.

"North Carolina doesn't have to resort to gambling to educate its citizens," said House Minority Whip Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell.

But supporters expressed confidence a game is a solution to the state's education funding worries.

"This is certainly an important day for the people of North Carolina and the educational system that we have and try to fund," said Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said many lottery opponents who worry about its effects on the poor have failed to help the needy in past sessions.

"You want to help poor folks? Like I said, raise the minimum wage. You want to help poor folks? Drop the sales tax," Michaux said.

The House bill would divide lottery profits - which are estimated to reach $450 million annually - three different ways. Half would go to local school construction.

Another 25 percent would go to need-based scholarships that could reach $4,000 annually per student. The rest would be placed in an "Education Enhancement Fund" controlled by the General Assembly. Such a fund would likely be tapped for special education initiatives like Easley's efforts to reduce class sizes and expand the More at Four preschool program.

In an effort to limit the lottery's effects, there would be no newspaper, radio or television advertising of the games, though opponents say such limits are unlikely to stay in place if the lottery is to reach expected revenues.

The House, which in 2002 rejected a proposal for a statewide referendum that would have advised whether to start a numbers game, had been considered the primary obstacle to a lottery.

Easley has campaigned for a lottery since he was elected governor in 2000. The Senate has approved lottery bills over the years, the last coming in 1993. A lottery vote bill failed in 1995.

Black's top lieutenant, Rules Committee chairman Rep. Bill Culpepper, D-Chowan, said passage was due in part to legislative loyalty to the speaker.

"Sometimes you've got to do it for your man," Culpepper said.

The original vote tally was 62-58, but the final difference was narrowed when Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, changed her vote from yes to no. Harrison, who was subject of intense lobbying, said she inadvertently pressed the wrong button.

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