Backers envision a low-key lottery

House could take first vote today

Staff WriterApril 6, 2005 

If North Carolina gets a lottery -- and a key vote on that could come today -- it would offer scratch-off tickets and numbers games without any razzle dazzle, House Speaker Jim Black says.

No "high-powered" advertising. No giant, multistate jackpots that generate headlines and long lines.

"No billboard, no TV ads, no stuff like that," Black said in an interview Tuesday.

Under a bill being prepared for a House vote, the state would ban advertising of lottery games except where the tickets are sold, according to Black and Rep. Bill Culpepper, who leads a special committee on the lottery.

Black said he doesn't want the state to seem as if it's preying on poor people, luring them into "pie-in-the-sky" profits that aren't there.

Opponents of a lottery say such talk is well-intentioned but unrealistic.

"If they try that modest way," said John Rustin, a lobbyist for the anti-lottery N.C. Family Policy Council, "then the income they get will be much, much, much smaller than any predictions. They'll have to do more."

Black said his goal with a lottery is to capture money from the people playing it now in surrounding states. Surely, he says, those players will find the games in North Carolina.

Culpepper said House leaders are headed in that direction. "The speaker is adamant that it comes out that way," he said.

The special House committee is scheduled to meet this morning to outline the lottery bill publicly for the first time, after delaying that review Tuesday.

Black said he plans to quickly put the bill up for a vote in the full House, possibly this afternoon.

If a bill passes the House, the Senate is expected to approve a lottery bill. Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, who presides over the Senate, announced her support Tuesday. Gov. Mike Easley, a longtime lottery supporter, would be expected to sign a lottery into law.

Supporters and opponents of a lottery say the vote will be close, and interests on both sides -- including the governor -- were pressing legislators.

Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat who is undecided, said she is hearing plenty from residents and party bosses. "I wouldn't call it arm-twisting," she said. "It's more pulse-taking."

A lottery would generate $400 million a year or more for education programs, House leaders and Easley say.

Opponents say the state should not sponsor gambling, and that there are better ways to pay for schools, including raising taxes or closing tax loopholes.

Black and House leaders say a lottery is the best -- and most popular -- way to raise new money, cash they want to divvy in a way to secure the most support from legislators:

* 50 percent would go to public school construction. Black said that would help counties, which typically build schools, keep property taxes low.

* 25 percent would go to need-based college scholarships.

* 25 percent would pay for the state's More at Four pre-kindergarten program and to reduce class sizes, two Easley initiatives.

Black said Tuesday that it is time for legislators to vote on an issue that has been debated for years in North Carolina, the only state on the East Coast without a lottery.

Although Black hopes to act quickly, he indicated he might wait a week or more to seek a final vote, if necessary, to secure the votes to pass the bill.

Black said a limit on advertising is crucial, to keep the state from hawking long-shot odds to residents. Black also wants the state to keep out of the Power Ball and Mega Millions multi-state jackpots for the same reason.

But that would put North Carolina almost alone in how it offers lottery games. Opponents say it won't be possible.

Virginia officials, for example, say they have one of the most restrictive advertising approaches in the nation. But they say such an approach wouldn't work for a state starting from scratch.

State laws keep the Virginia Lottery, which has operated since 1988, from showing winners getting rich quick or basking in luxury. Ads can't denigrate a strong work ethic. And the state must show the odds of winning in its ads, which are on TV and radio, in newspapers and on billboards across the state.

"We're less aggressive than almost anyone, and it's challenging even now to create interesting ads," said Jill Vaughan, a lottery spokeswoman.

Opponents say states that try to restrict ads eventually can't help themselves as they rely more and more on lottery money.

Many states, including Virginia, regularly look for new games and new ways to bring in more players, officials said.

Scratch-off games with names such as "Easy Money" and "Struck it Rich," are now offered at $1, $2, $5 and $10 levels in states that surround North Carolina. Most offer a variety of numbers games, some with twice-a-day drawings.

Massachusetts legislators scaled back advertising of games in 1997. But faced with a financial crisis in 2003, the legislature dropped the limits and created a pot of money to run ads that boosted revenue.

The big jackpots offered by multistate lotteries also have become important elsewhere.

In Georgia, officials say they were pleased that several big jackpots in last year's Mega Millions game, including one for nearly $300 million, drove up ticket sales. It helped Georgia meet fiscal goals needed to pay for college scholarships the lottery supports.

If North Carolina approves a lottery, South Carolina lottery officials say they would launch an advertising campaign to keep their share of lottery money.

"We're working on a border campaign," said Tony Cooper, the South Carolina lottery's chief operating officer. "We'd definitely have a strategy. We consider all the Carolinas our market."

How any lottery would be marketed in North Carolina has been one of the biggest concerns of freshman Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat.

She earlier offered support for a lottery, as long as there were advertising restrictions. But she said Tuesday that even limiting advertising to the point of sale isn't enough to persuade her to vote for a lottery.

"The more you look into it," she said, "the more you realize that the state wouldn't be able to do that to get the money we're talking about. ... You have to end up on that slippery slope."

Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss can be reached at 829-4840 or acurliss@newsobserver.com.

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