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Panel Speaks At GTCC Against Proposed Lottery

BY Aulica Rutland
by Aulica Rutland on 3/18/01.

Chris Fitzsimon wonders whether Gov. Mike Easley would consider pumping state dollars into alcohol advertising in hopes of increasing revenues from the state 's alcohol taxes to support education.

Would Easley think of saying: ''We need more money. Our classes are too big. Please buy another fifth of Jack Daniel's,'' Fitzsimon, director of the Commonsense Foundation, asked Saturday morning at a panel discussion on the lottery Easley has proposed to support education.

''I would ask you to tell me what the difference is'' between advertising for a state lottery and advertising for increased alcohol-tax revenues, Fitzsimon said.

Fitzsimon was one of five members on the panel discussing the economic impact of the proposed lottery. The daylong summit at GTCC on the lottery was sponsored by N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy.

Easley has urged the General Assembly to consider starting a statewide lottery to pay for two key education proposals: smaller primary-grade classes and a prekindergarten program for poor 4-year-olds.

Easley projects a lottery could bring in $ 450 million a year for the state's coffers.

Lottery proponents, including Easley, argue that North Carolina should set up a game to keep its residents from playing lotteries in Virginia and Georgia. North Carolinians spend an estimated $ 121 million each year on those games - money Easley wants to go to his education proposals.

Opponents say that a lottery creates a false hope of instant wealth and preys on the poor. Many churches say gambling is a sin the state should not endorse.

Four of the panel's five members, Fitzsimon, Don Carrington of the John Locke Foundation; Dan Gerlach of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center; and Ruth Samuelson, Mecklenburg county commissioner, spoke out vehemently against a lottery. The panel's fifth member, Charles Clotfelter, a professor of economics at Duke University, took no side on the issue.

Clotfelter, co-author of a book on lotteries, ''Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America,'' said studies show 60 percent of the state's residents support a lottery.

''People want to play the lottery,'' Clotfelter said. ''For the most part, they're not passionate about it, most of them, but they like to play, and right now it is illegal to play the lottery in the state of North Carolina.

''For most people, lottery play is pretty harmless,'' he said, calling it no more wasteful than playing a video game or more harmful than eating a sausage biscuit.

''But for a small percentage,'' Clotfelter said, ''it can be quite harmful.''

Fitzsimon said he was stunned during a 1989 visit to the Ohio Lottery Commission to find that part of that commission's advertising strategy was to increase advertisements for the lottery in poor areas on the days that welfare checks were distributed.

The lottery, Fitzsimon said, is set up to ''encourage and cajole and trick poor folks into paying'' for government programs.

Carrington says there's no way a lottery here could rake in the $ 450 million Easley predicts. The panel agreed that after the expense of prizes and operating costs, the state would only make about 33 cents for each dollar spent. If half of the state's 3.1 million households played the lottery, Carrington argued, each household would have to spend $ 870 each year on tickets for the state to reap a $ 450 million profit.

''That means you have to convince your neighbors that they have to cough up $ 870 a year to balance the state budget,'' Carrington said.