About 10 years ago, I covered the grand opening of Casino Aztar, a riverboat on the muddy Ohio. About 8 p.m. that inaugural evening, as sevens spun like funnel clouds inside video poker machines and dice tumbled across the putting greens of craps tables, something tragic happened.
The jangling sound of coins emptying into the metal cups—silent. The retina-burning lights illuminating every corner—black. Power outage. Game over.
Now, if only the state legislature would cut the lights on the North Carolina Education Lottery. Tricky, those lawmakers and Gov. Mike Easley: They inserted the word "education" into the lottery's official title—as if the $10 you anted up for your scratch-off ticket went directly for a laptop computer or new textbook at your neighborhood school.
That's about as likely as drawing a royal flush. As The New York Times reported Oct. 7, the North Carolina Education Lottery generated only 1.2 percent of K-12 revenue last year. (Some money also went to college scholarships.) Of 17 states that earmark lottery money for public schools, North Carolina ranks 11th in the amount of education revenue its lottery generates. Most state lottery money, the Times noted, goes to sustaining the games, marketing, prizes and vendor commissions.
Two years ago, the Independent reported that thanks to a legislative sleight of hand, the state is allowed to use lottery money to supplant, not supplement, existing public school funding. Now, even the state's paltry 1.2 percent donation fails to meaningfully contribute to public education's bottom line.
While some social conservatives view gambling as sinful, I think it's an amoral, if unwise, use of money. That said, the Times reported a sobering statistic: States want to bolster their number of core gamblers—10 percent to 15 percent of all players—who account for 80 percent of lottery sales. This is certainly true in North Carolina, where, with lottery revenue for schools $200 million lower than the projected, Easley and Co. want us to play more, to empty our piggy banks, to roll another number against nearly impossible odds—all under the guise of supporting education.
The lottery's Web site looks exciting, with bold colors, just like the interior of the Casino Aztar. It features photos of the lucky winners, but not pictures of people who are charging their groceries because they're short on cash. Their lucky numbers haven't come up yet.
The state's job is to be society's civilizing force. It shouldn't kill. It shouldn't lie. It shouldn't encourage citizens to stand under trees during lightning storms. The odds of being struck in any given year? One in 700,000. Nonetheless, North Carolina encourages its citizens to spend money in hopes of winning the Powerball Jackpot. The odds? One in 146 million.
Here's a lesson: The house always wins.