Betting a bad hand

Jun. 16, 2014 @ 05:38 PM

When leaders in the N. C. House unveiled their budget proposal last week, their counting on increased proceeds from the state’s lottery to pay for teacher raises made it almost irresistible to describe the plan as a gamble.

It turns out it also was a bluff of sorts.

Even before the House voted to approve the budget, officials at the N. C. Education Lottery had waved a red flag about the projected increase. The budget lets the lottery spend twice as much for advertising and assumes the increase will entice the lottery’s eager marks to kick in an extra $425 million a year. Most of the lottery’s added profit -- $106 million -- would pay for the raises.

But when the House doubled the cap on what the lottery could spend to advertise -- to two percent of its revenues -- it added some restrictions that were a nod to those who worry the lottery preys on vulnerable players. The lottery couldn’t advertise at college sporting events, and it would have to disclose the odds against winning the top prize -- not the odds of winning any prize.

We suspect that anyone who gives it a moment’s thought realizes the odds of winning the top prize are only very slightly greater if you buy a ticket than if you don’t buy one. But the lottery officials assume, not unreasonably, that bluntly reminding folks might discourage some from playing.

If nothing else, the House proposal has revived and underscored our complicated relationship with the lottery.

Despite expectations the lottery’s Democratic champions encouraged in 2005, the lottery’s proceeds are not necessarily expanding the state’s support of education. Increasingly, they merely replace shrinking general-fund allocations to our public schools.

And while the legislation creating the lottery called for 35 percent of the proceeds to go to education, in recent years that has shrunk to about 30 percent.

Ironically, Republicans generally rejected the lottery when the legislature narrowly created it in 2005.  That was in part because it was then-governor Mike Easley’s idea, but it also, to be fair, reflected the concerns many shared then and still share that lotteries attracts disproportionate numbers of lower-income players. Lured by the all-but-impossible but still tantalizing chance of winning big, they pump dollars into lottery tickets that might be better saved or spent on their families.

But politics is a pragmatic calling, and we can give credit to House Speaker Thom Tillis for concluding “it is here and you can’t necessarily unring that bell when you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars going to education.”

What we can’t accept is that the legislators’ projections for how many millions they will have for education may be delusional.

The legislative leadership probably will never concur, but it seems evident the only true solution to the politically popular teacher pay issue is the politically unpopular notion of higher taxes.

Anything else is likely to prove a bad bet.