Even before the House gave final approval to its budget last week, Speaker Thom Tillis seemed to be backing off one of its most controversial provisions, the proposal to increase lottery advertising to raise money to pay for a 5 percent salary increase for teachers.
Tillis said that the House had a way to fund teacher pay hikes with “other sources” if there was opposition to using increased lottery revenues to provide the funding.
Tillis’ remarks and the chilly reception to the lottery proposal by Senate leaders led most legislative observers to believe the lottery proposal was going nowhere and would not be part of a final budget agreement between the House and Senate.
Revelations after the vote supported that theory. The News & Observer reported that before the House voted on the budget, lottery officials sent legislative staffers a memo showing that the lottery would not raise the amount called for in the House spending plan because of new lottery advertising restrictions that were also included.
That seemed to close the door on using increased lottery revenues to pay for teacher raises, a conclusion that’s become conventional wisdom in the legislative halls.
But news of the demise of the reliance on the predatory lottery to give teachers a raise may have been premature.
Reportedly, some senators have privately warmed to the idea because it allows them to fund the pay hike without some of the draconian cuts in the Senate budget plan, like kicking the aged, blind, and disabled off Medicaid or firing 7,400 teacher assistants.
And while no Senate leaders have public endorsed the proposal, some have questioned the new restrictions on advertising that limit how much money the lottery can raise even with a larger advertising budget.
Let’s hope Senate leaders rely on their first instinct about the plan and not look for the “easy money” some House leaders believe the lottery can raise.
Any lawmaker who doubts the compelling evidence that the lottery is a cynical and regressive way to raise money should read the latest report about lottery sales from Sarah Ovaska at N.C. Policy Watch.
North Carolinians spent $238 per capita buying lottery tickets in 2013 and that only counts people aged 18 and above. In some poor counties in the Northeast part of the state, the rate was much higher. People in Halifax County spent $577 per capita on lottery tickets last year. In Nash County, they spent $598.
Every study that’s been done shows that low-income people play the lottery at higher rates than the general population and the latest sales figures confirm it. People in struggling parts of North Carolina are spending $600 a year or more throwing their money away on a one in 10 million chance of striking it rich.
And some members of General Assembly want the state to encourage them to spend more because lawmakers can’t find the courage to raise money honestly for compelling state needs like giving teachers and state employees an overdue salary increase.
There’s an easy answer to the dilemma lawmakers face. They don’t need to throw vulnerable people off the Medicaid rolls and into the street. And they don’t need to rely on enticing low-income people into throwing their money away on more lottery tickets.
They could simply stop the next round of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that go into effect Jan. 1. That would raise roughly the same amount of money in the next fiscal year for teacher raises as the cynical House lottery proposal.
Millionaires in North Carolina received a tax break of more than $10,000 in last year’s tax cutting frenzy. They don’t need another break.
And people already having trouble making ends meet don’t need to be told even more often that the answer to their problems is buying another lottery ticket.
North Carolina ought to be better than that. We will find out soon if it actually is.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch.