State judge says games came about legally; opponents may appeal
North Carolina's new lottery is on schedule to begin selling tickets March 30, after a state judge declined yesterday to stop it and after the top attorney for lottery opponents said he probably won't ask for an immediate stop to the games.
The long-term status of the lottery is less clear, though, as lottery opponents consider appeals to higher courts.
Among the opponents are several research groups from Raleigh, including the conservative N.C. Family Policy Council and the liberal Common Sense Foundation. They sued the state in December, arguing that state legislators violated the North Carolina Constitution last year by rushing their votes to create a lottery.
The constitution sometimes requires that legislators vote three times on three separate days - for example, when they're deciding on tax bills or bills that pledge the credit of the state. Legislative leaders and their attorneys argue that the lottery vote did not fit any of those cases.
Judge Henry Hight of Wake Superior Court sided with legislative leaders yesterday, after hearing arguments in the case Monday.
A "tax is a forced contribution to government which has no necessary immediate relationship to a benefit conferred," Hight wrote. The lottery, he added, "allows a person to voluntarily purchase a lottery ticket and receive immediately in return the opportunity to win a prize."
Lottery opponents had not decided yesterday afternoon whether they would appeal the ruling, said Robert Orr, the lead attorney for the lottery opponents and a former justice on the N.C. Supreme Court. An appeal might go directly to the N.C. Supreme Court if a majority of the seven justices agree to hear it, he said.
"This is not a single-elimination tournament. There are other games to be played," Orr said.
He would not rule out asking a higher court to stop the sale of lottery tickets next week while judges considered the merits of the case, but he said that it was unlikely.
"Realistically, that's a difficult circumstance in light of the fact that the trial court has ruled against us," Orr said. "As a practical matter, you can all probably take your April paychecks and buy scratch tickets."
Lottery director Tom Shaheen praised Hight's ruling. He said that the lottery continues to build its infrastructure, including lottery terminals in at least 4,381 stores statewide. Television ads are scheduled to start Monday.
Store workers who have signed up for training sessions have had a 99.9percent attendance rate.
"All of the pieces of the puzzle have to come together," Shaheen said. "We have to focus on that and nothing else. Whatever happens, happens. That's life."
Orr warned that the scheduled sale of tickets - and all the money the state is investing for start-up costs - would not dissuade potential appeals to higher courts.
"The state's going to have to proceed at its own risk," he said, "if this moves forward on appeal."
Four scratch-off games are scheduled to begin sales March 30. Tickets for the multistate Powerball game are expected to start two months later, followed by a daily numbers game in the fall.
Lottery sales are expected to be at least $1 billion a year.
After prizes and operating costs, about $425 million is expected to be spent on several education programs: 50 percent to hire more elementary-school teachers and to expand a pre-kindergarten program; 40 percent to help counties build schools; and 10 percent for college scholarships.
The money currently being spent for those purposes could be used for other government programs or for tax cuts.