House Speaker Jim Black chose his top lieutenant Monday to lead a special committee whose mission is to fashion an education lottery bill on which the full chamber can vote.
Rep. Bill Culpepper, chairman of the House Rules Committee, will also chair the 14-member House Select Committee on the Lottery, which will meet for the first time this afternoon.
Black won't serve on the committee but hand-picked its members. They will examine three lottery bills introduced this year in the House before generating their recommendations.
Black, D-Mecklenburg, and Culpepper said a floor vote could be held next week, although the panel has until April 11 to file a report.
Even lottery supporters have acknowledged there are only about 50 votes in the House right now to pass a bill with no statewide referendum attached -- not the 61 needed. But that could change.
"I think it's close. I think it's closer that some of the numbers I've seen," said Culpepper, D-Chowan.
The panel is comprised of 10 Democrats and four Republicans. One GOP member, Rep. Wilma Sherrill of Buncombe County, voted in 2002 for an advisory referendum on the lottery. Two others -- Reps. Robert Grady of Onslow County and Roger West of Cherokee County voted against it.
West was noncommittal on his lottery views Monday night.
"I can live with it. I can live without it," said Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee, whose district touches Georgia and Tennessee, both lottery states.
Black, D-Mecklenburg, said he believes all of them -- including West -- now will support a lottery.
"He's close to the (state) line," said Black, an ardent lottery supporter after years of being lukewarm on the issue. "He's seen (lottery) money being sent out of the state."
North Carolina is the only state on the East Coast without a lottery. Black is interested in generating revenues for education initiatives, including class-size reduction, school construction and alternate school programs for troubled kids.
Gov. Mike Easley, a fellow Democrat who made an education lottery a campaign pillar, estimates a game could bring in $450 million to $500 million a year.
West said he's pleased that Black wants a straight up-or-down vote on creating a lottery, rather than a referendum, which wouldn't be binding on legislators. A referendum has given some undecideds political cover in the past so they could defer to state voters.
"If you don't got the guts to be here, don't be here," he said.
Four vice chairmen on the committee include three members who have filed lottery bills: Reps. Bernard Allen, D-Wake; Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson; and Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank. The other vice chairman is Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir.
Other members include Democratic Reps. Becky Carney of Mecklenburg County, Margaret Dickson of Cumberland County, Pryor Gibson of Anson County, Russell Tucker of Duplin County, Arthur Williams of Beaufort County and Doug Yongue of Scotland County.
Six of the 10 Democrats were in the chamber in 2002. They all voted for the lottery referendum.
The Rev. Mark Creech with the Christian Action League of North Carolina, a lottery opponent, said league affiliates are being asked to contact to legislator, urging them to oppose a lottery.
"We feel confident, but anyone who knows the political process know that is fraught with change," Creech said. "Anything can happen."
Because the committee is stacked almost entirely with lottery supporters, passage there is all but certain. The drama will be the vote by the entire House.
Education spending is top priority
Culpepper said the committee's challenge is distributing the proceeds in a way that will make a majority happy. The money will all go to education, but that could be school construction, scholarships, low wealth districts, pre-kindergarten or smaller class sizes.
"There are a litany of ways to spend it," said Rep. Becky Carney, a Mecklenburg County Democrat who was named to the committee.
Culpepper said he wants to include as many ideas as possible, "but not put too many rocks in the pan."
The committee members shared their opinions about lottery spending Tuesday during the close of the first meeting of the House Select Committee on the Lottery. The members unanimously prefer education as the destination for lottery profits and favor strong language to ensure that money from the game doesn't merely supplant cash from other sources.
Each of the committee members said they want the estimated $400 million to $450 million a year in lottery proceeds for education needs, though there was some difference about what kind of spending would best benefit schools and about how many ways the money should be split.
"We're in a scary time," said Rep. Wilma Sherrill, R-Buncombe. "In my opinion, it's time to do something to show that education's our top priority."
Most members of the 15-person committee favored spending at least a portion of the money on what they estimated to be an $8 billion statewide backlog of school construction. Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, and Rep. Russell Tucker, D-Duplin, said they would also favor letting school systems use lottery money to pay off past construction debts.
Others favored a college scholarship program, while some encouraged their colleagues to consider using the money to address the needs of disadvantaged students. A series of rulings in the 11-year-old Leandro school financing lawsuit have forced the state to spend more money to educate those students.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, suggested devoting most of the money to school construction and reserving the rest for one-time expenses.
"It's something that hits across the state," Carney said. "I hate to see us take this lottery and divide it into 25 different pieces."
Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, a committee vice chairman, said that may be the only way to win enough support among House legislators, who have historically opposed a lottery.
"If you just narrow it down to a couple of things, you won't pass this lottery bill. I can assure you," Owens said. "You've got to have an umbrella."
The committee also reviewed three pending bills related to the lottery. One proposes a binding referendum. Another calls for a lottery that dedicates all the proceeds to college scholarships for North Carolina students who graduate from high school with at least a B average.
The third would allow counties to decide whether they want a lottery and set up the game after 25 counties signed on. A quarter of the proceeds would be spent for school construction and the remainder for other educational costs.