House Speaker Jim Black said he wants lawmakers to vote on a state lottery in the next two weeks, and he virtually guaranteed Wednesday that the proposal would reach his chamber's floor.
A state numbers game, a regular winner in the Senate that typically dies in the House, could fail in a House committee -- in theory. But Black, D-Mecklenburg, said the education lottery plan he and Gov. Mike Easley are pushing would be heard by a special committee.
Black, a lottery supporter, will appoint the committee's members.
Lawmakers are scrambling to find as much as $1.3 billion to fill gaps in the next state budget. Easley's staff says a lottery could raise up to $450 million a year. "We need to know how much money is going to be available," Black said.
North Carolina is surrounded by lotteries, pressuring lawmakers to follow suit. But those on both sides say the plan doesn't yet have the 60 or 61 votes needed to pass the House.
Opponents killed a proposed lottery referendum, 69-50, the last time the House voted in 2002, and they say they're prepared to vote down a lottery directly this time. They've argued that state-sponsored gaming is immoral and preys upon poor residents who believe they have a shot at big winnings.
Black has tried to head off that argument by saying the state shouldn't advertise the lottery in ways that misrepresent the chances of winning.
"We'll be ready and loaded for bear," said lottery critic Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake. He said Easley, a Democrat who campaigned in part on getting a lottery, has raised the issue so often that opponents know to be ready at any time.
"I think everybody is just ready to vote and get it over with," he said.
Black's new schedule on the lottery comes as critics have blasted him over special funds that he, his House colleague Richard Morgan, R-Moore, and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, set up last year. The three leaders were able to pass money to nonprofits in their backers' districts.
The speaker used $45,000 from one of the funds to create a state job for a political ally, former Rep. Michael Decker.
The press for a lottery vote gives Black an issue that polls show most North Carolinians support and many of his critics oppose.
Money from North Carolinians who play in other states -- as much as $300 million a year spent in South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia -- could pay for school construction here and for alternative learning programs that keep potential dropouts in school, Black said.
"We've got to stop the bleeding," the speaker said of the money going to other states.
Black's plan is similar to Easley's. The governor wants to dedicate lottery money to hiring more teachers in order to shrink class sizes. Easley also would pay for more prekindergarten programs and boost school construction with the money, he has said.