Easley still wants lottery as a revenue source, but he's gentler about it now
Gov. Mike Easley never got the state lottery he pushed for when running for office four years ago. His Republican opponents, some Democratic lawmakers and even some of his biggest supporters in other policy areas have blocked it or spoken against it.
But the Democratic governor who's running for re-election still wants one.
He teased one gaming opponent, his outgoing state education Superintendent Mike Ward, late last month on Ward's last day of work before moving to Mississippi, where his wife got a new job.
"He said if you don't get an education lottery, I'm going to move to a state that has one," the governor joked.
Easley has mentioned the lottery more and more often during the election season, but not in the insistent tone in which he demanded one in his State of the State address nearly two years ago.
Instead, he jokes about it. Or he mentions it whenever reporters or critics say that despite signs in the state of an economic recovery, the budget still might still be short on money for education improvements.
"There's a lot that can be done without adding more money; I concede that. But if you look at all the things we need to address, we are going to have to find another revenue source," Easley said in an interview with the Observer last week. "I think the lottery is the best place to look."
Easley argues that lottery money could expand his More at Four prekindergarten program or the class-size-reduction plan he's scrambled to find money for during the past four years. It could also help school districts pay for construction. Some local school leaders in the state have complained that discretionary cuts approved by the legislature and Easley have slowed school construction.
"I'm ready to hear some other ideas, like I keep saying. But a lottery makes sense for a lot of reasons," Easley said.
The critics, however, include his closest allies. Ward vocally opposed the lottery. So was Easley's top budget adviser, before he got that job. So are some Democrats in a closely divided state House. So is Easley's Republican opponent, Patrick Ballantine, who criticized the idea on a Chapel Hill-based radio program Friday.
Ballantine has argued that state-run gambling is unseemly, but Friday, he said a state numbers game wouldn't bring enough money to state coffers make a difference.
"I can take anybody off the street and find more than 1 percent savings in state government," he said on WUNC-FM.
The budget is officially about $16 billion, but Ballantine was arguing lottery proceeds would bring in less than 1 percent of $30 billion, the total the state gets from taxes and from the federal government to run its programs.
"I would say it's fraudulent to say that the lottery will solve all of our problems when it's less than 1 percent of our annual revenues," Ballantine said.
Easley's broaching of the lottery topic could help or hurt him politically. Several polls say more than 60 percent of North Carolinians back a lottery. But several political watchers argue that opponents are more likely to mobilize themselves and vote based on the issue than supporters.
Some lawmakers say Easley toned down his call for a lottery after his 2003 State of the State address, when the N.C. House voted against approving a public referendum on the issue. But Dan Gerlach, Easley's adviser who was an outspoken lottery opponent before joining the administration, said he expects his boss to push "quite strongly" for a state game.
"The people broadly support a lottery," Gerlach said, adding their "tolerance is getting shorter and shorter" of those who oppose it.