For years, North Carolina has held out against the nation's lottery boom, making it the largest of just 10 states in the nation without government-run gambling.
Now, though, the numbers may finally be coming up in favor of a numbers game in the only East Coast state without one.
The speaker of the state House of Representatives has said he now favors a lottery, joining second-term Gov. Mike Easley, a longtime proponent. Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, says he intends to bring a lottery bill to the House floor where past lottery efforts have died within weeks. He also plans to name a special committee to hear the bill, to ensure it doesn't get tripped up on its way to the floor.
Observers say North Carolina's long resistance to a lottery results from a proud, stubborn streak, an alliance of liberals and antigambling conservatives and one of the strongest economies in the Southeast.
"There is that strain in our state genetic makeup, that we're a fiercely independent state, a state that doesn't just follow the crowd, a state that just follows its own impulses," said Ferrell Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But North Carolina's long economic boom came to an end earlier this decade, and the state has been hit hard by the decline of traditional industries like tobacco, textiles and furniture.
The state's recovery from the recession has been halting, and lawmakers returned for their biannual budget-writing session this year knowing that the state already faces a $1 billion gap between revenues and spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Medicaid costs and rulings that compel the state to spend more on education will keep the pressure on revenues to grow.
The last time a lottery bill made it to a House vote, in September 2002, Republicans and mostly liberal Democrats allied to defeat a measure, 69-50, that would have given citizens an advisory vote on whether to start one.
Since then, Tennessee has added a lottery, making North Carolina an island surrounded by four states with numbers games. South Carolina has said it earned more than $151 million for education during the first year of the lottery it started in 2002.
Lawmakers like Black have grown tired both of watching an estimated 300 million North Carolina dollars a year go to other states' games and having to scrape to find ways to meet mushrooming spending demands.
That has put the speaker on the same side of the issue as longtime lottery proponent Easley, a fellow Democrat who estimates a game could bring in $450 million to $500 million a year. Opponents argue the amount would be less.
The speaker says his focus is on recapturing money spent on other states' games and that all revenue from a lottery should go to education. He also wants to limit the amount of money spent advertising the game.
"I want to keep it simple," Black said Thursday. "If we're going to do it, let's do it now."
Nancy Todd Tyner, a Las Vegas-based political consultant who worked on winning lottery campaigns in South Carolina and Oklahoma, said that is exactly the approach Black needs to take to sell the idea.
Tennessee and South Carolina, the two neighboring states that have added lotteries since 2002, each faced shortfalls of millions of dollars when their successful lottery campaigns started.
Both states dedicate all or most lottery proceeds to education needs, including scholarships, preschool programs and capital programs for public education.
While Tyner is not surprised that North Carolina's moral conservatism has kept a lottery at bay for so long, she argues it's time for the state to join the 21st century.
"It's unfortunate that so much of your money is leaving the state," she said. "Lotteries are popular. They're innocuous. They're not going to take your milk money."
Approval by the House would clear the way for a lottery to begin operation in as little as six months. The state Senate has approved lottery bills in the past and Senate leader Marc Basnight is a lottery supporter, while Easley is expected to sign on.
But even Black acknowledges that the votes may not be there to get the lottery through the House.
John Rustin, a lobbyist with the North Carolina Family Policy Council, is among the lottery opponents girding for a fight. Rustin argues that legalized gambling leads to other ills and is bad public policy over time.
North Carolina icons across the political spectrum from conservative evangelist Billy Graham to liberals like retired North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and retired University of North Carolina system President Bill Friday also have spoken out over the years against a form of gambling the believe preys on the poor.
"As a state, we are better than that. I think we are very fortunate that we have seen the negative experiences" of other states with a lottery, Rustin said. "I believe the statesmen need to do the hard work to find the resources to fund their priorities."
But many legislators are weary of the annual budget battles and a lottery is often the preferred remedy for fiscal headaches, Tyner said.
"It's always been a product of financial need," she said. "It doesn't get generated in a healthy state."
Rep. Dewey Hill, D-Columbus, a lottery opponent in 2002, said economic pressures have persuaded him to accept a bill with Black's guidelines. Others may switch sides with him.
"We want to know exactly where that money is going to," Hill said.
Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, estimates about 50 representatives now support a lottery still about 10 votes short of what's needed for passage.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Richard Morgan, R-Moore, the second-ranking officer in the House, remains an opponent.
Black sees no point in a prolonged discussion of the issue. He believes most lawmakers have already made up their minds.
"We're going to get the question out of the way," he said. "You can't stand on both sides of it now. We're going to find out how you feel on the lottery.
"Vote it up or down and let's get on with our lives."