The signs say it all: Play Here.
After years of watching players take their millionaire dreams — and spending money — across state borders, North Carolinians will start playing their own lottery today.
At 6 a.m. in Raleigh, State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee will buy the ceremonial first ticket of the N.C. Education Lottery. Lottery retailers throughout the state will start selling tickets to four scratch-off games at that time.
The state has sent more than 50 million tickets to about 5,000 stores. Another 50 million or so are waiting in a Raleigh warehouse.
If things go smoothly, lottery officials want to launch other instant winner games within weeks. Powerball, the country's largest gambling prize, will be available at N.C. stores by late May.
But lottery fans and critics will wait months to get answers to questions that made the lottery a hot-button issue for more than 20 years.
No one knows whether the state can meet its goal of selling $1.2 billion worth of tickets in a year's time. That would mean about $400 million for N.C. schools. And it's not certain that schools will end up with more money than they would have gotten from the state anyway.
Tom Shaheen, who moved from New Mexico to North Carolina to run the lottery, said long lines at convenience stores today would be an early sign of success. But answers to long-term questions will be more important.
"There's no real gauge about what makes a successful lottery, other than public opinion," Shaheen said.
N.C. Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who voted against it, said, "Time will tell whether the lottery will live up to the expectations which have been created."
North Carolina is the 42nd state to launch a lottery, the last on the East Coast. The state has spent more than $6 million to help Shaheen set up a 163-employee agency in three months. Shaheen will get his own reward — a $50,000 bonus with the launch of the lottery.
The state will hold celebrations in several major N.C. cities today and throughout the weekend. But part of the game's success will be measured in small towns that dot the state's borders with South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Lottery supporters finally got lawmakers to back the game by arguing N.C. ticket buyers were spending up to $400 million on tickets in other states. That was tantamount to giving $100 million to fund other states' schools, they argued.
Now that the decision is past and the tickets printed, it's in everyone's interest that the lottery succeed, said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. He voted against the lottery but now plans to sell tickets in his Black Mountain store.
"We should always want what we do in the legislature to be in the best interest of the state — and to work," he said.
How They'll Work
Here's a look at the first four N.C. lottery games:
The ticket buyer gets 15 numbers. If they match any of the four "winning numbers" on the ticket, the buyer wins the prize shown.
- Ticket cost: $5
- Odds of winning any prize: 1 in 3.75
- Top prize: $100,000
The game simulates blackjack at a casino. If any of the ticket buyer's 10 "hands" outranks the dealer's two cards, the buyer wins the prize marked.
- Ticket cost: $2
- Odds of winning any prize: 1 in 4.8
- Top prize: $21,000
N.C. Education Lottery Tickets
The tickets contain images of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, a dogwood tree, a cardinal or Fairfield Lake in Jackson County. Players rub off the ticket to reveal six prize amounts. If three of the amounts are the same, the player wins.
- Ticket cost: $1
- Odds of winning a prize: 1 in 4.6
- Top prize: $5,000
Tic Tac Toe
If three prizes line up horizontally, vertically or diagonally, the player wins the amount marked in the "prize" box.
- Ticket cost: $1
- Odds of winning a prize: 1 in 4.9
- Top prize: $5,000
Where's the Party?
The N.C. Education Lottery's first launch party will be at Independence Center Plaza at the corner of Trade and Tryon streets in uptown Charlotte today from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Scratch-off tickets will be on sale there until 2 p.m. The lottery will also bring a "cash cube." Participants can try to grab free lottery tickets swirling around a sealed booth.
INSTANT GAMES: Lottery officials know the initial excitement over games can wear off quickly. They want to launch four new scratch-off games within a few weeks.POWERBALL The N.C. lottery will start its first numbers game May 30.
N.C. NUMBERS GAMES: Lottery head Tom Shaheen expects to create Pick 3, Pick 4 or Pick 5 games by the fall, similar to those the S.C. lottery offers. The state also could team with neighboring states to provide a game with a larger jackpot.
Answers to your lottery questions
Q: When do tickets go on sale?
6 a.m. today
Q: Who can buy tickets?
Anyone 18 or older
Q: Where can I play?
Any of the more than 5,000 retailers displaying the N.C. Education Lottery logo. Visit the interactive map at charlotte.com/news for details.
Q: How much do tickets cost?
Tickets based on four different scratch-off games cost $1, $2 and $5.
Q: What do you mean by scratch-off?
Players use a coin or a fingernail to remove a layer of latex from the tickets. Rules printed on the tickets tell buyers whether they win.
Q: How much can I win?
The Carolina Cash game has the largest payout among the first four games. Tickets cost $5 and the top prize is $100,000, before taxes come out. The $2 game pays up to $21,000, and the top prize in the $1 game is $5,000.
The smallest prize in each game is a refund or a free ticket.
Q: Can I win more than $100,000?
Not yet. The lottery plans to join the multi-state Powerball game in late May, which gives ticket buyers the opportunity to win millions of dollars.
Q: Why do people call it the Education Lottery?
Because that's the official name. The Carolinas are the only two states that have included "education" as part of the formal name of their lotteries.
Q: How do I claim a prize?
Players who win less than $600 can get their winnings at any lottery retailer. Those who win prizes from $600 to $99,999 can claim their prize by mail or visit one of the lottery's regional offices. Those who win $100,000 or more have to claim their prize in Raleigh.
Q: Who gets the profit?
The money goes into the state's general coffers. State law says the money must go to four education programs -- prekindergarten instruction, reducing class size, school construction and college scholarships.
Q: So school bond proposals will disappear?
No. The money used to build schools won't fill the need, officials say. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for instance, would get an estimated $18.25 million in the lottery's first full year. That's less than the cost of building one modern high school.
Q: Will lawmakers use the money for causes other than education?
We'll see. Critics have said the state will just spend money that currently goes to these programs elsewhere. The budget that Gov. Mike Easley and lawmakers propose this summer will spell out whether the lottery money boosts education spending beyond the increase they would have proposed without a lottery. Easley has said the state needs an N.C. constitutional amendment that would ensure the lottery money will add to education funding.
Q: Which state's lottery is better -- North Carolina or South Carolina?
At the N.C. lottery's launch, South Carolina will have more scratch-off lottery games, and some games offer larger prizes than in North Carolina. South Carolina also has numbers games that let players win larger jackpots by attempting to pick winning numbers. South Carolina's offerings include Powerball , a multi-state numbers game.
North Carolina will expand its scratch-off games. The state plans to add Powerball in late May and other numbers games in the fall.
Q: Will I have better odds of winning in North Carolina or South Carolina?
Each scratch-off game in the two states has different odds and different prize amounts. For Powerball, the odds of winning will be the same wherever the ticket is bought.
Q: What about gambling addiction?
North Carolina has set up a gambling addiction help line: (877) 718-5543.
Q: How can I get more information?
Each retailer should have handouts. You can also visit the lottery's Web site: www.nc-educationlottery.org