With passage of a $17.1 billion budget bill by the North Carolina House of Representatives last week, the lottery debate is heating up in North Carolina.
Lottery provisions have been included in the budget plan if it does become law. But much negotiation remains between the Senate and the House before that comes to pass, and the lottery could be on shaky ground.
"We're just hoping the Senate will go along with the House version," said state Rep. Jim Crawford (D-32nd), who represents Granville and part of Vance County. "If they change it, we won't get it passed a second time."
Crawford, of Oxford, said the House passed a bill that allows for a weakened lottery system - one that can't be advertised or promoted. But that was the only way any kind of lottery would sneak through the House, he suggested, and strengthening the lottery will have to come later.
"The House passed what I would call a stripped-down version, that didn't allow advertising and some issues that to me looked probably necessary for a successful lottery," Crawford said. "But the best thing for the Senate to do would be to pass it as we've written it (and fix it later). I wouldn't want to risk trying to rewrite it now."
Freshman state Rep. Michael Wray (D-27) of Gaston is a big lottery supporter. The man who represents citizens in Northampton, Vance and Warren counties blames politics for allowing North Carolina to fall behind surrounding states that already have lotteries.
"A lot of our people are going across the state line. That's money we're losing," Wray said.
State Sen. Doug Berger of Youngsville, who represents Vance, Granville, Warren and Franklin counties, supports a lottery to benefit education and senior citizens. He could not be reached Saturday for comment.
Crawford believes the state is losing more than just lottery dollars. He said North Carolinians who travel to Virginia or elsewhere to buy lottery tickets don't restrain their spending to such state-sanctioned gambling.
"If they just buy a lottery ticket, it'd be fine. But they go up there and have dinner, spend $50, get a tank of gas, walk through an antique shop in Clarksville and buy a chair," said Crawford.
"I think we lose twice as many dollars of other business to Virginia because of the lottery than we do lottery dollars."
Virginia has had its lottery for many years. But the politics of a North Carolina lottery didn't shift in favor of gaming until Tennessee and South Carolina added their own games, said Crawford.
A North Carolina lottery became more attractive "when Charlotte money started going to South Carolina," Crawford said.
Gov. Mike Easley has been pushing for a state lottery in North Carolina since his election in 2000. He's lacked the backing in the legislature, but not necessarily among the public, until this year.
Sentiment is split in the Tri-County area, as it is throughout the state. Opponents cite profit allocation and government involvement in "numbers games" as concerns. Supporters see a state lottery as great way to bring money into the state's coffers.
Michael Gilligan of Oxford said he has purchased lottery tickets in the past from Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia, but he opposes a North Carolina lottery.
"The government should not be involved in (the lottery)," said Gilligan, a statement echoed by several others interviewed by the Dispatch Saturday afternoon. Gilligan said he has been following the debate and has been struck by "how bad Easley wants it."
If there is a lottery, the profits should go to schools, Gilligan stated. But he does not believe it will save taxpayers money.
Despite his opposition, Gilligan went on to say that if a lottery does come to the state he will "occasionally" buy tickets.
Morris Brame, who is from Henderson but currently lives in Durham, is a state lottery supporter who said he has purchased tickets from other states "a bunch of times." Brame hasn't been following the North Carolina debate, but he feels that it doesn't make sense for North Carolinians to have to cross the borders to buy a lottery ticket.
"Why are you going to give another state all this money?" Brame said.
As for lottery profits, Brame said he thinks they should be set aside for "education, highways and public schools around here."
Asked whether he'd buy a North Carolina lottery ticket, Brame said, "Most definitely."
Wray agrees with the House bill's intention to give half of net profits from a lottery to education projects. He said lottery proceeds should go toward improving education and quality of life for North Carolina children.
"It all falls back to our children," Wray said. "Our children are our future."
Wray acknowledges there are lottery opponents, many of whom base their positions on moral grounds. But he has his own response to that position.
"Some people say (the lottery) is a sin," Wray said, "but I feel it's a sin not to look after our children. ` I've prayed about it and I feel it's the right thing to do."
Crawford concedes the lottery is a divisive issue but said polls show about three out of four North Carolinians support the concept.
"In statewide polls, about 76 percent are in favor of the lottery," he said. "I hear from them every day. They ask when we're going to get the lottery. `
"The folks against the lottery are much more organized. You'll get the same letter from 100 people," Crawford said. "(But) I hear from more people who want the lottery than those who are against."