North Carolina is five votes away from getting a lottery. It's about the only Southern state without one right now. Certainly the lottery looks good on its face. Georgia's lottery has established the remarkable Hope Scholarships, which send any Georgia high school student whose GPA is above 3.0 to a state school for free (not bad, when your options include UGA and Georgia Tech). Virginia's lottery has contributed immensely to its public school system. Why not try to give North Carolina's schools a boost?
Let's look at who opposes this lottery. The mommies and daddies in the Republican Party say that nice boys and girls don't play at betting games. I don't respect that point of view enough to argue with it. But the objections pointed out by the five Democrats who stand in the lottery's way (including Janet Cowell, my Senator) and the three moderate Republicans who are being lobbied by the lottery (among them Cary's Richard Stevens, who is about three blocks away from being my Senator) give me pause.
Stevens and the Republicans are concerned that the money won't be spent well. One Jones County senator points out that the money his district will be getting will barely be enough to build three portable classrooms. If the money is divided according to the current plan, Jones can forget about the two new schools it needs. (Ironic moment: the legislative building is located on Jones Street, which is named after the aforementioned county.) They also point out that the funds can be diverted from education when the state needs them, which essentially turns an ostensibly education-oriented lottery into just another revenue generator.
Cowell and company say that the lottery is a "poor tax" - i.e. it hits the poor, who need the money, more heavily than the rich. And they have a point. In this legislative session North Carolina has given money away to corporate interests, lowered the top income tax bracket, and raised the sales tax. We don't need yet another revenue generator that acts regressively. But this isn't your everyday tax - no one is forcing people to play the lottery. If you can't afford the ticket but buy one anyway, it's your own fault for being irresponsible. We're getting dangerously close to the "mommy and daddy" philosophy held onto by Republicans.
But the liberals have a point - there are better ways of generating revenue. Not making irresponsible tax cuts when the state is having budget troubles might help too. (And I thought that was just a Republican problem.) A higher tobacco tax - NC's is currently lowest in the nation - would also do the trick, though that might end up being just as regressive as the lottery. Sales and property taxes can be restructured so that they fall progressively instead of regressively.
And the moderate conservatives have a point - don't expect the lottery to magically make our school system better. At its base, it's just another way of making money, and not even a good one.
I still support the lottery. I've never heard of anyone going broke from playing the lottery. Hell, I even support taxed privately-owned gambling since it would tend to take money from the more affluent (N&O columnist Dennis Rogers is with me on this one). But I worry about how much good this lottery's going to do. We can hope it will work the same miracles it worked in Georgia, but don't bet on it. Our trusty state will find a way to screw it up.
Speaking of Georgia, the Washington Post published an op-ed by David Becker that brings attention to an onerous law being pushed by Georgia Republicans. They want to require photo IDs at polling stations. They say it will limit fraud, even though Secretary of State Cathy Cox points out there hasn't really been any fraud in Georgia except by absentee ballot. No, Republicans realize that the harder it is to vote, the less poor people and minorities will vote. And the less poor people and minorities vote, the more Republicans win.
Honestly, I can't believe that people would actually want to make it harder for people to vote. Voting is kind of central to our democracy. The hard work should be in making the decision, not in physically casting the ballot.