Leaders in the N.C. House hope to hold an up-or-down vote on a state lottery within the next several weeks and not put the issue to a vote of the people, House Speaker Jim Black said yesterday.
"I'm serious about going on and voting it. I want to get it over with, up or down, and move on," Black said.
Though lottery supporters have argued for years that voters should decide on a lottery, opponents say that a referendum itself would be unconstitutional because North Carolina's constitution doesn't allow for such votes and that legislators ultimately must decide whether to enact a lottery.
"If we go with a referendum, we haven't done anything but take a survey. We have to vote it in anyway," Black said.
Even some backers of a lottery have doubts that legislators would adopt a lottery in a straight up-or-down vote. But they would be able to get lottery money more quickly for a struggling state budget if they did.
If officials put the matter to a vote of the people, they would have to schedule the statewide vote. Opponents would then be likely to challenge it in court.
Even if a lottery proposal cleared the courts, and won approval from voters and then legislators, officials say, it would take about six months to start a North Carolina lottery.
Having legislators decide the issue themselves is "a lot quicker than having a referendum," Black said yesterday. "And besides that, a referendum doesn't do it. I agree that it's unconstitutional. If we have to do it, we might as well just do it."
He said that legislators need to know soon whether lottery money might be available as they try to fill a projected budget hole of $1.3 billion for 2005-06.
"We need to know how much revenue is going to be available," he said. "If we're not going to have that (lottery money), we need to know that."
Black said he is still awaiting the results of a survey of House members to determine how they would vote on a lottery with no referendum.
Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, a Democratic whip in the House, is one of the members conducting that survey.
Holliman, who has filed a bill to enact a lottery without a referendum, said yesterday that he thinks legislators are ready to adopt a lottery on their own.
Out of 120 House members, "I think we're probably within two to five votes. Most of the Democrats are willing to go, up or down," he said. "There's four or five that are going to vote no.
"I think we've got two or three votes that I know of on the other (Republican) side. We may need two or three more," he said.
Dan Gerlach, a budget adviser to Gov. Mike Easley, who has long favored a lottery, said that a lottery could help pay for needed education programs.
Easley's staff estimates that a lottery would raise $450 million to $500 million a year for the state. Legislative analysts say that the state's take would be $400 million to $425 million a year.
"In order to keep our investments in education, they're going to need a new revenue source in an education lottery," Gerlach said. "We're paying tens of millions of dollars to Richmond to help pay for their schools.& A lot of people are reconsidering this and saying it's time for an education lottery."
As for a referendum, "I think the speaker's judgment on that is best, but you're going to have to vote on a lottery sooner or later," Gerlach said.
Though lottery proponents have called for a referendum for years, Rep. Dewey Hill, D-Columbus, said yesterday that a referendum isn't needed.
Traditionally, "it's to cover some legislators who say, My people wanted it,'" Hill said.
Polls usually find that two-thirds of North Carolina residents support a lottery. An Elon University poll last month found that 69 percent favor a lottery, 26 percent oppose it, and 37 percent said they had bought a lottery ticket in a neighboring state in the past year.
"I think the polls are pretty clear out there about what people think about a lottery. I don't think we need to go through all that process. I just think it's a waste of time. We know what the people think," Hill said. "I think we were elected to make decisions."
Holliman and Hill said that the use of the money would be key to gaining support. "When you set up a lottery, you have one chance to do it right," said Holliman.
Holliman's bill would devote the money to scholarships for students at public and private universities and community colleges who maintain at least a 3.0 grade-point average.
Legislators could also use some of the money to help counties with school construction, he said, but the money needs to be kept separate from the state budget so that conventional education spending doesn't shrink.
But Holliman also acknowledged that if legislators devote lottery money to new programs as he proposes, it wouldn't help solve the state's budget troubles.
"No. No it doesn't," he said. "To depend on a lottery to take care of the budget is not the right way to go."But many legislators also think that even though most voters favor a lottery, those who oppose it feel more strongly - and are more likely to take it out on legislators at the polls.
Lottery opponents tend to fill up legislators' e-mail boxes when a lottery proposal comes up, and they promised another fight yesterday.
"We are confident that the votes exist to defeat both a bill with a referendum and without a referendum. But a non-referendum bill would be defeated by more significant margins," said John Rustin of the N.C. Family Policy Council.
"The vast majority of the members understand that the lottery is bad public policy," Rustin said, contending that low-income people play lotteries more heavily and that advertising often deceives players about the odds of winning.
Chuck Neely, the leader of a coalition called Citizens United Against the Lottery, said that Black is right not to try to put the lottery issue to a referendum. A court fight over a referendum could tie up the issue for two years, he said.
"We have always contended that the North Carolina Constitution does not authorize the use of referenda to decide issues that are properly decided by the General Assembly," Neely said. "We're glad that the speaker recognized that."