The North Carolina House approved a lottery Wednesday in a vote that could bring a state-operated numbers game to the only state on the East Coast without one.
The House voted 62-58 in favor of a measure bill that would dedicate profits from the games to school construction, scholarships and other education initiatives.
The bill would also ban lottery advertising anywhere except the sites where the tickets are sold.
Democratic Gov. Mike Easley has been pushing a lottery for education needs since taking office in 2001. House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, and his lieutenants pushed a bill through a lottery committee earlier in the day.
Though past lottery proposals met their demise in the House, supporters finally persuaded enough lawmakers worried about education funding — and a projected $1 billion state spending shortfall this coming budget year — to come to their side.
"I'm not so passionate about a lottery, but I am passionate about education," Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, said during an hour-long debate that preceded a swift floor vote.
Despite objections from the floor, Black pushed through a second-required voice vote immediately after the roll-call vote.
The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration. The Senate historically has favored a lottery but hasn't voted on a bill in a dozen years.
Supporters have said a lottery can be up and running in North Carolina within six months, and movement on Wednesday's bill was unusually swift for a body that often takes months to bring divisive measures to the floor.
Black, long opposed to a lottery, announced last month that he now supported one for the sake of recapturing money being spent on other states' games. He then said he would quickly bring a bill to the floor for a vote and named a special committee of lottery supporters to assure it encountered no obstacles.
Lottery supporters have said that with new games started in Tennessee and South Carolina in recent years, North Carolinians now spend $300 million a year on neighboring states' lotteries.
Opponents countered that the lottery's results will not match supporters' rosy predictions, warning it will create addicted gamblers, disproportionately harm the poor and won't generate the expected profits.
"North Carolina doesn't have to resort to gambling to educate its citizens," said House Minority Whip Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell.
Rep. John Sauls, R-Lee, a pastor, likened using a lottery to raise money for education to a drug dealer who keeps selling drugs instead of taking a job at a fast food restaurant.
"I think is a sad day in North Carolina," Sauls said.
But supporters expressed confidence a game is a solution to the state's education funding worries.
"This is certainly an important day for the people of North Carolina and the educational system that we have and try to fund," said Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank.
Added Rep. Bernard Allen, D-Wake: "I firmly believe we are doing the right thing. We as elected officials have a duty to provide a (sound) education for the boys and girls of our state."
The House bill would divide lottery profits — which are estimated to reach $450 million annually — three different ways. Half would go to local school construction.
Another 25 percent would go to need-based scholarships that could reach $4,000 annually per student. The rest would be placed in an "Education Enhancement Fund" controlled by the General Assembly. Such a fund would likely be tapped for special education initiatives like Easley's efforts to reduce class sizes and expand the More at Four preschool program.
In an effort to address concerns that the lottery will act as a tax on the poor, there would be no newspaper, radio or television advertising of the games.
Opponents countered that there is no way the state will be able to leave such advertising limits in place if the lottery is to reach expected revenues.
"There will be a lot of pressure to take that ban on advertising off," said John Rustin with the North Carolina Family Policy Council. Opponents also complained that language in the bill that states that lottery revenues may not be used to offset normal education spending is meaningless.
The House, which in 2002 rejected a proposal for a statewide referendum that would have advised whether to start a numbers game, had been considered the primary obstacle to passage of a lottery.
Easley has campaigned for a lottery since he was elected governor in 2000. The Senate has approved lottery bills over the years, but has not voted on the issue since 1993.