In the 10 weeks that a lottery referendum sat on the state house daily calendar this summer, lawmakers seeking to balance North Carolina's books declined to raise revenue by closing corporate loopholes while at the same time cutting money to schools and social service programs, eliminating pay raises for state workers, and planning to keep (and spend) $330 million that belongs to counties and towns. The last move has prompted a lawsuit by local leaders furious that they may have to raise the regressive sales tax to balance their budgets, spinning the budget debate into North Carolina's courtrooms.
Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Easley's pro-lottery coalition complained to anyone who would listen that if only House Republicans and progressive Democrats who opposed the lottery--for very different reasons--would just fall in line behind their leader, the state's budget woes would ease, schools would improve and we'd all live luckily ever after.
Easley's magic-cure-all argument shriveled like North Carolina's reservoirs as the summer wore on, and still, the lottery referendum sat on the calendar, with Speaker Jim Black promising to bring it up for a vote before the session wound down.
And then a last-minute effort by lottery supporters lowered the bar even further, when House Democrats threatened to include the referendum in the final budget proposal, putting the squeeze on opponents who wanted to vote yes on a spending plan and no on the lottery. To his credit, Black put the measure to a vote by itself on Sept. 17, two and a half months after it first appeared on the calendar. The resounding defeat, a 69-50 vote, dealt Easley's leadership a blow he called "unbelievable."
"The lottery vote was a huge victory for working families and a fairer tax system for low and moderate-income people," says Kim Cartron of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, a progressive think-tank. "The last thing they needed was a lottery taking tax dollars out of their pockets."
The governor didn't think so. In a temper tantrum, Easley retaliated by publicly decrying the $70 million in "additional cuts" legislators would have to make to "make up for" lost lottery revenue--income he shouldn't have budgeted in the first place.
Perhaps now the governor and his lottery supporters can spend a little less time and energy on a issue that never had the votes to succeed, and come up with some less-regressive ideas of how to trim the remaining $100 million that still holds the state's final spending plan in the red.