Lottery shell game is now complete

By Scott Mooneyham | Sep 23, 2013

Today in North Carolina -- Capitol Press Association -- 919-836-2858

Written September 23, 2013 – Did We Buy a Lemon?, by Scott Mooneyham


RALEIGH -- Thirteen years later, Dennis Wicker appears to have been right.


The former Democratic lieutenant governor, when he was running for governor in 2000, called the lottery plan of his then-opponent, Mike Easley, the "Florida lemon."


Easley would eventually beat Wicker in the Democratic primary, win the governorship, and five years later, see his lottery plan passed into law.


Wicker had reluctantly endorsed a lottery as well, but wanted the program modeled on Georgia's plan, with the money going toward college scholarships for high school seniors attaining a B-average or better.


He predicted that Easley's plan, with most of the money earmarked for public schools, would lead North Carolina down the same path as Florida, that legislators would reduce the general appropriation for the public schools and substitute lottery money for it.


One way that Easley and the Democrats who then controlled the legislature answered the "supplanting" criticism was to create a funding formula that required lottery money to go to specific purposes. The formula put 50 percent toward reducing class size in early grades and pre-kindergarten, 40 percent to school construction and 10 percent to college scholarships for needy children.


This year, legislators got rid of the formula, causing some critics to conclude that the shell game is now complete.


Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a Forsyth County Republican and the chief budget writer in the Senate, told the Associated Press that the decision to drop the formula didn't change much.


"It really wasn't a substantive change in terms of actual budget practices over the years," Brunstetter.


He's right. No matter who was in charge, in most years, legislators deviated from the distribution formula.


By just about any measure, some portion of the $480 million in lottery profits had been going for purposes once funded by tax dollars.


What the current legislature has done is stop pretending, even if the decision could harm the funding area least subject to the shell game -- local school construction.


That there is no hue and cry regarding the decision should not come as a surprise.


Public support of the lottery stemmed mostly from the fact that a majority wanted to be able to play the games, not that they clamored for some alternative revenue stream for schools.


Within political circles, the lottery was always more about partisan advantage than improving schools.


Across the South, Democratic politicians and their handlers used the lottery to bludgeon Republicans and win gubernatorial contests. Republican politicians, trapped because of primary contests decided by social conservative voters opposed to a lottery, mostly sat quietly and took their beating.


So,. even in a South turning increasingly red, Democrats like Zell Miller in Georgia and Jim Hodges in South Carolina rode lottery support to gubernatorial wins. Easley did the same.


But more than a decade later, it is worth considering how different the lottery funding debate might be had Wicker's idea, if not his candidacy, won the day and North Carolina not bought the Florida lemon.