RALEIGH — Robeson County may be one of the poorest counties in the state, but when it comes to the North Carolina Education Lottery, it’s a big spender.
Robeson County residents spent more than $23.5 million on the lottery in 2011, the 18th highest amount in the state, and its per capita spending of $239.36 for that year ranked it 33rd in the state.
Severeo Kerns, a member of the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County, does not believe the numbers add up to a win for the county.
“My opinion is it has not been successful,” he said.
For the 2011 year, Wake County ranked No. 1 in the state with $127 million in buying lotto tickets, and Nash County led per capita spending at $561.55.
Kerns said all the lottery has done for Robeson County is drain people’s pockets.
“We’re poorer now than we were when the lottery came,” Kerns said.
Robeson County residents have spent $124 million on tickets since the lottery was established in 2006, while $66 million has been returned in prizes and $47 million has been allocated to the Public Schools of Robeson County. That is an $11 million deficit.
“We should at least get more than $47 million back,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, who said he is not a supporter of the lottery. “We should be a formidable player if we pay that much.”
Pierce believes the dollars that counties receive should be tied to their participation.
“It needs to be based on a better formula …,” he said.
The state sends lottery money to local school systems, which allots it as follows: 50 percent for teachers’ salaries in kindergarten through third grade; 22.7 percent for school construction; 14.3 percent for pre-kindergarten programs; 6.9 percent for need-based college scholarships; 3.7 percent for local school systems; and 2.4 percent for UNC need-based financial aid.
Pierce said Robeson County is an easy mark for the lottery, saying advertisements target the poor and feed a get-rich-quick mentality. He voted last April in favor of the Honest Lottery Act, which easily passed and prevents lottery advertisements from using misleading information and requires them to include information on responsible gambling.
Studies have shown that a disproportionate amount of people who play lotteries are poor. According to the 2010 U.S. Cencus, 31.5 percent of Robeson County residents were living below the poverty line, the highest percentage in the state and 80th highest in the country.
“It’s taxing those … who really can’t afford it,” Pierce said.
Kerns is not surprised by the negative return.
“I was against it from the beginning, and I’m against it now,” Kerns said. “The return was never going to be as big as they said. The facts prove that now.”
According to lottery spokesman Van Denton, school boards divide lottery allocations for salaries and construction, while the state Department of Health and Human Services administers money for pre-kindergarten. The State Education Assistance Authority, part of the College Foundation of North Carolina, divides lottery allocations for scholarships and financial aid by county, Denton said.
The $47 million in lottery money has helped Robeson County in several ways, according to Erica Setzer, finance officer for the Public Schools of Robeson County.
“It has certainly allowed us to keep class sizes down. It mostly funds pre-K, and it helps with the upkeep and maintenance of our buildings,” she said.
Setzer said the county received $1.7 million for construction for its 44 public schools last fiscal year.
State Sen. Michael Walters said while school construction and teachers’ salaries are important, he believes kindergarten through third grade education needs the most attention.
“If we don’t identify that part of the educational process, we’ll never gain that ground back. We have to give them [students] the foundation they need,” he said.
When legislators created the lottery in 2005, they mandated that 50 percent of all ticket revenue go to prizes and 35 percent go to education. Legislators also allocated 8 percent for administrative costs, including advertising, and 7 percent for retail commissions.
The 2007-08 state budget loosened the allocation requirements by saying they should be made “to the extent practicable.” Last month, the state Senate passed a budget that took out all percentage rules for allocating lottery money.
As of last year, the proceeds were divided as follows: 60 percent for prizes; 29 percent for education; 7 percent for retail commissions; and 4 percent for administrative costs.
PSRC Superintendent Johnny Hunt said the money the schools receive is a drop in the bucket compared with the needs.
“The bulk of the lottery monies were supposed to be designated for education, but it does not appear that has happened,” he said. “The Public Schools of Robeson County has a tremendous number of facility needs. Those needs are more than $300 million.”
Mark Jacobs, 32, of Pembroke, said he plays the lottery twice a week, sometimes with $5 Mega Bucks tickets. He said he thinks the game helps education through the number of tickets sold.
“I assume it does [help education],” Jacobs said. “A lot of people buy it.”
In 2010, then-Gov. Bev Perdue and legislators allocated $26.6 million in lottery revenue to close a Medicaid shortfall. The money came from “unclaimed Lottery prize money and excess receipts,” according to an April 12, 2012, General Assembly report.
Pierce defends the allocation.
“That was something that needed to happen. You’ve got to take care of the sick,” Pierce said. “A lot of people in Robeson County depend on Medicaid.”
Pierce said the lottery would be “bamboozled and misrepresenting” if most of its revenue did not go toward education.
“If it was created as an education lottery, then as much as humanly possible, the money should go to education,” he said.