North Carolina lost its label Thursday as the only East Coast state without a lottery, getting off to a quick start as commuters, casino-players and the curious snatched up the first batch of instant tickets.
Attracted by the promise of $400 million annually for education and spurred on by Gov. Mike Easley, the General Assembly narrowly passed a lottery last summer, following the lead of 41 other states and all of its neighbors.
"Why should we be giving our money to Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee?" Sarah Haynes asked after buying 40 $1 tickets at a gas station north of downtown Raleigh. She was wearing a jacket emblazoned with the logo of an out-of-state casino. "Taxes are already too high."
Retailers statewide began selling tickets at 6 a.m., shortly after State Board of Education chairman Howard Lee bought the ceremonial first tickets at dawn.
"This is fantastic," Lee said, holding up the tickets at the lottery's Raleigh office. "This is a great day in the state of North Carolina."
By midday, Lee had given his five $1 tickets to North Carolina Teacher of the Year Wendy Miller, who won $10 that she then gave back to the state. It was part of the estimated $1.3 million in prizes paid out by mid-afternoon, lottery officials said.
Ticket sales by then had reached about $6.5 million, well beyond the early $2 million estimate of lottery officials. Executive director Tom Shaheen estimated that sales would reach more than $10 million for the day.
At least 35 percent of every ticket sale must go public-school construction, class-size reduction, need-based college scholarships and a voluntary pre-kindergarten program.
"As I scratch the tickets, I'm thinking of the faces of children across the state," Miller said outside the state Education Building.
There were a few reports of technical problems, and by late afternoon about 200 machines of the more than 5,000 retail outlets permitted to sell tickets still remained off-line, lottery officials said.
"This is probably the smoothest startup I have been involved with," said Shaheen, who also helped with lottery launches in Georgia and New Mexico. "This earns all the employees their startup bonus."
Across the state, early customers bought lottery tickets along with their coffee and snacks. When Brian Regling stopped at a Raleigh convenience store, a clerk and the store manager were still reading instructions about the game.
"It's been too long coming, that's for sure," said Regling, who with friend, Tim Bradford, scratched off a losing ticket. "I grew up in New York so I've always played the lottery since I was eligible to buy the tickets."
Santo Nina was the first in line to buy tickets in a temporary tent in downtown Charlotte during a lottery kickoff celebration, one of 18 media events statewide Thursday. He bought $16 in tickets.
"I lost today, but maybe next time," said Nina, a native of the Dominican Republic who came to town to take a U.S. citizenship test.
Lawmakers started considering a statewide lottery in the early 1980s. Easley started pushing the idea again after taking office in 2001, and it gained momentum after South Carolina and Tennessee began their lotteries a few years later.
But resistance to the lottery remained stiff, as Tar Heel notables from the Rev. Billy Graham to retired North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith expressed opposition.
They and other opponents said the games would prey on the poor, encourage more compulsive gambling and simply shift education spending to the lottery at the expense of other programs.
"The people understand that this is a new era for our state," John Rustin with the N.C. Family Policy Council said Thursday. "People will be led to believe the lottery is a cash cow for education, and it's not."
Easley and legislative leaders countered that North Carolina residents were paying to educate children in other states by playing lotteries across the border.
The state House approved the game by just two votes last April. Four months later, Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue broke a 24-24 tie in the state Senate, a vote called only when it became clear that two Republicans expected to oppose the lottery would miss the final vote.
A variety of new scratch-off tickets will follow, with the multistate Powerball numbers game beginning in late May. The lottery law also sets aside up to $1 million to assist problem gamblers and requires strict advertising restrictions.
Wanda Pope, who owns a television and appliance store didn't have any trouble finding a lottery outlet. She came inside a Raleigh gas station to redeem $7 in prizes, but didn't mind buying $20 in tickets to get them.
"It's fun. It's a challenge," she said. "You've got to lose some to win some."
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