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In North Carolina, Fight over Lottery Continues

RALEIGH, N.C. -- It's a sure bet that if North Carolina becomes the final state on the East Coast to offer a lottery, supporters say, lawmakers will have hundreds of millions of extra dollars to spend every year on education.

But just as certain, opponents argue, is that as revenues rise, so will the number of North Carolinians addicted to gambling.

"The lottery will hurt a lot of people. It's a tax on the poor. It affects families," Tom Spampinato of Cary, N.C., who spent 22 years battling a gambling addiction, told the Associated Press. He now is interim director of the state chapter of Gamblers Anonymous, an organization he's been affiliated with for 27 years.

"It's just another avenue, another thing that will cause people to gamble. ... It's not an effective way to raise money. It is an effective way to get people into trouble."

But that's a risk worth taking, according to supporters who say the boost a lottery would provide to the state budget outweighs the potential social costs. The numbers game lawmakers are considering would generate an estimated $400 million to $450 million annually.

Competing proposals earmark revenues for items such as school construction, college scholarships or an "education enhancement fund."

And it's not the same as a casino.

"A casino tends to be an amusement location, whereas a lottery is kind of a daily or weekly or episodic purchase," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "People tend to think of them differently."

For years, however, the difference between cashing chips at the craps table and buying a lottery ticket along with a tank of gas at the convenience store hasn't been enough to overcome the state's resistance to a lottery.

North Carolina is the largest of the 10 states nationwide that do not have some kind of government-run gambling.

An alliance of liberals and conservatives, making the argument that lotteries place a disproportionate financial burden on the poor and can lead to financial strains in families, have successfully limited the only form of gambling in the state to restrictive video-based games at a single American Indian casino, as well as some convenience stores and similar locations.

The strength of the economy also kept back attempts to start a lottery, according to the AP, but the decline of the state's once-strong textiles, tobacco and manufacturing industries has helped create significant budget shortfalls. And since he was first elected in 2000, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley has adamantly promoted a lottery.

His lobbying and economic reality have gradually weakened lawmakers' resistance. House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, began endorsing a lottery this session after years of indifference.

This year, the Senate's proposed budget included conditional language about how to spend proceeds from a lottery, if one were approved. The separate bill that would actually create the lottery was passed by the House on April 6 -- with two votes to spare -- and now awaits Senate action.

Supporters have pledged to use some lottery proceeds to assist problem gamblers, but that's not much consolation to those who work with gambling addicts.

"The key for these people is just the availability," said Duke University professor Charles Clotfelter. "It makes it too easy to do."

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