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Lottery Opponents not Folding

BY Yonat Shimron
by Yonat Shimron on 3/10/01.

Gov. Mike Easley's call for a state lottery is about to get an emphatic answer: Some of the state's religious, business, academic and civic leaders are mounting a vigorous campaign to stop it.

A group, including two former governors, a retired chief justice and two former UNC system presidents, plans to step forward next week - tentatively Tuesday - to announce its opposition to a lottery. The action comes after leaders of the United Methodist Church sent a letter to the governor, pledging to do all they could to resist a lottery.

"We start each legislative session knowing we are going to have to fight the lottery," said George Reed, executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches, which includes the state governing bodies of 14 denominations representing 7,000 to 8,000 congregations. "Opponents are realizing there is a fight in front of us and getting ready to do what we need to do to express our opposition. We're getting an increasing number of phone calls saying, 'What can we do?' "

There are few issues on which North Carolina's faith community is as vocal or as united. Opposition to the lottery draws together a diverse coalition of conservative and liberal political policy groups, too. This year's list of opponents is especially impressive.

Among them are retired state Treasurer Harlan Boyles; retired UNC basketball coach Dean Smith; retired UNC system presidents William Friday and Dick Spangler; former governors Jim Martin and Bob Scott; Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton; former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham; Duke historian John Hope Franklin; former U.S. Ambassador Jeanette Hyde; Wake Forest University President Thomas Hearn; Burley Mitchell, retired chief justice of the state supreme court; and Frank Daniels Jr., former publisher of The News & Observer. Chuck Neely, a Raleigh lawyer and former legislator who organized the group, said they want to make a united statement.

"There is just a general sense that this does not represent North Carolina values and is not good for North Carolina," Neely said. "We're trying to make this into an umbrella organization that will encompass the whole movement."

Lottery bills have popped up every session since the 1980s. But the issue appears to have more currency this session. For starters, a lottery has an advocate in the governor's mansion for the first time. Furthermore, legislators are in a pinch for money, which a lottery would provide - though not for a year or two.

Two bills calling for a statewide vote on a lottery have been filed, and at least one more is expected.

House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat from Matthews, said lottery bills face "an uphill battle."

Black said it was unclear when the legislature would debate the issue. Black said his lieutenants have been counting votes in the House, and it is close.

"Supporters of bills like the lottery don't want the bills to come up unless they will pass," Black said. "If the room never gets right, they don't show up."

Easley spokesman Cari Hepp said the governor "looks forward to a debate on the lottery and other innovative funding options for education programs."

Hepp said Easley favors the lottery as an option for funding his education priorities, such as lowering class size in kindergarten through third grade and setting up a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children. If lawmakers have better ideas, Easley said, he wants to hear them.

In their letter, the two United Methodist bishops, Charlene P. Kammerer and Marion M. Edwards, offered several. They urged Easley to seek money by closing tax loopholes, to raise the state income tax on those whose incomes exceed $ 200,000 per year and to limit economic development aid.

And religious groups cite a range of objections.

Conservative churches say a state-sponsored lottery would contribute to the decline of the family. Liberal churches say a lottery would prey on the poor and vulnerable. And most moderate churches say the lottery would hurt the work ethic and promote the idea that you can get something for nothing.

In the state Baptist newspaper, The Biblical Recorder, the editor recently protested Easley's call for a lottery with an editorial headlined, "Show me the morals."

The state's two bishops of the Roman Catholic church, which is on record opposing a lottery, will probably issue a joint letter, area church officials say. And a coalition of conservative and liberal church groups, seasoned by past battles, are waiting in the wings and ready for their cue.

Although church leaders want to let legislators know they will work hard to defeat a state lottery, they are keeping their heavy artillery in reserve.

Instead of mounting a full-fledged campaign and hitting the airwaves, ministers and denominational leaders are urging members to write their representatives to say that a lottery runs contrary to Judeo-Christian values and undermines public morality. Many lobbyists for religious organizations say personal letters may be the most effective way to defeat a bill.

"I think if it comes down to a public referendum, you'll see the religious community campaign to vote it down - with rallies, billboards, letters to the editor," said Tony Cartledge, editor of The Biblical Recorder.

But for now, lobbyists for religious groups aren't sure there are enough votes to put the issue before North Carolina voters.

"The House is divided fairly evenly on this," said Doug Cole, a lobbyist on behalf of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and executive director of its Council on Christian Life and Public Affairs. "It's by no means a done deal."

While Virginia already has a lottery that draws many North Carolina players, South Carolina voters last fall cleared the way for the legislature there to approve one.

Rep. Toby Fitch, a Democrat from Wilson who has filed one lottery bill, said a lottery offers a way to spend more on education. Fitch said North Carolinians already play lotteries, but the state doesn't benefit. His bills called for a public vote on a lottery.

"Why are we afraid to let the people decide it?" Fitch said.

"I think there is probably more organized opposition to the lottery than in the past," said Fitch, who has filed lottery bills at least five times.

Churches aren't the only groups taking aim at the lottery.

N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy, a nonpartisan group that advocates for lower taxes and less regulation, has been gathering signatures on petitions to present to lawmakers, saying the lottery is a predatory tax on hard-working people and urging legislators to vote against any lottery initiative.

"It will be a tidal wave of paper," said Andrew Brock, grass-roots coordinator for Citizens for a Sound Economy.

The N.C. Family Policy Council has been presenting information on hidden social costs, such as its estimate of the percentage of people who will become compulsive gamblers and the consequences.

"Typically people hear about the big winners and how big the jackpots are," said John Rustin, director of government relations with the council. "It appears evident that folks across the state are becoming more and more aware of the negative aspects of the lottery."

But leaders within the religious community are also aware that the cards have changed since 1999, when the issue was last debated.

"When you have the governor openly supporting the lottery, that makes it harder for anyone opposing it," said Reed, executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches. "The governor has a lot of clout."

The timetable on a lottery debate in the legislature remains unclear. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, said the Democratic majority Senate would pass a lottery. But it's still unclear whether the House will pass it.

"There is still a lot of missionary work to be done," said Rep. David Redwine, a Democrat from Ocean Isle Beach. "If you see that bill moving in either house, you may reasonably surmise the votes have been rounded up in some way."