If North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black has his way, the General Assembly will be plunged next month into a short, intense drama over whether state government should start a lottery.
Last week, before the assembled capital press corps, Mr. Black, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, repeated that he expects a vote on a lottery bill in the House within two weeks.
Tonight, he will announce his appointments to a special committee that will work up the proposal, presumably during the next week. If that sounds like a short amount of time to craft such an important piece of legislation, consider that talks have been ongoing in private for weeks.
According to Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, and the governors office, a bipartisan group of pro-lottery House members has been meeting with the governors staff on and off in private during the past
They have already hammered out the basics of the bill, which is likely to create a lottery that would spend its proceeds on university scholarships, aid to local governments for school construction, early childhood programs and programs aimed at students thought to be at-risk for failing or dropping out.
Mr. Black hinted last week that there may be other features, including money designed to address the Leandro decision, which requires the legislature to ease inequities between rich and poor school districts.
The lottery has not been popular in the House. The last time the issue bubbled to the surface was in 2002, when representatives soundly rejected sending the issue to voters in a non-binding referendum.
Clearly, from the speakers comments last week, he is more optimistic this year that enough votes can be found to pass the bill.
Just as the House is ramping up for this historic vote, opponents and supporters of the effort are activating their campaigns. The N.C. Budget and Tax Center, an independent research group that has been critical of the lottery idea before, last week issued a fresh position paper indicating that education spending in lottery states doesnt grow as fast as it has in states without lotteries.
Citizens United Against the Lottery, which led much of the march against the lottery proposals in the legislature in 2001 and 2002, still has a dormant Web site but circulated a notice around the capital last week saying that it was coming back together.
If research by UNCW professor Randy Bobbitt on lottery campaigns in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee, show anything, it is that both the pro and anti sides, if given time, wage their campaigns through the media and directly to voters.
If the debate over the lottery becomes protracted, expect to hear and see a lot about it in radio and television advertising. Perhaps the speakers insistence on an unusually short timetable for such landmark legislation is to keep the flak down to a minimum.
It will also be interesting to see what Wilmington-area lawmakers will do. Among them, there is no real champion of the lottery.
Many, like Republican Reps. Danny McComas and Carolyn Justice, give two-part answers they are skeptical about the lottery but could vote for it if certain conditions are met. In Mr. McComas case, the lottery money must go in some part to school construction to win his approval.
Ms. Justice has said she is no fan of the lottery but will follow the will of her constituents.
The Democratic delegation includes two other interesting characters. Rep. Dewey Hill, D-Columbus, has come over from the skeptical camp to say that North Carolina needs a lottery to win back some of the money its residents spend on out-of-state games.
Rep. Edd Nye, D-Bladen, has opposed the lottery and has been part of the core of conservative Democrats whove been able to halt House lottery proposals in previous years.
One legislator on the fence
In the looming battle over a state lottery, state Rep. Bonner Stiller sits in no man's land.
The Oak Island Republican could be ostracized from his party if he supports the lottery bill, but his coastal district is full of newcomers from lottery states who wonder why they can't buy tickets here.
In the November election, he had a safe answer: Let the voters decide in a nonbinding referendum, and he would vote his district's wishes. But now House Speaker Jim Black says he will call on lawmakers to create or reject a lottery.
Party whips on both sides want to know where Stiller stands.
Undecided, Stiller says.
"I'm just trying to make a very informed decision, and that's it," said Stiller, whose district is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. "I personally think that people ought to do with their money what they want to."
Stiller is one of about a dozen lawmakers from both parties who will be lobbied hard as the countdown to a vote begins.