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It ain't elitist to want a better lottery deal

But put your money on the House, 'cause the Senate's crapped out.

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I, for one, plead not guilty to the charge leveled at the Independent and ilk (his word was "readership") by our friend and first-term state Senator Doug Berger. Berger, whose district is just north of the Triangle and runs up to the Virginia line, tells us that most folks there like to gamble a little--"whether elites on the left or right like it or not." So they want a state lottery. What's more, they're tired of being told that they shouldn't want one by the "inside the beltway crowd"--told that if they insist on their dissolute ways, they should drive for their penance to South Hill, Va., and back while they think it over. "Elites on the left," Berger adds, in a retort posted online at www.thepoliticaljunkies.net , "like their counterparts on the far right, have a disdain for the popular will of the people, and the popular culture itself."

Good gravy! Disdain for the popular will? Here in lefty-land, that's the kind of thing that, if true, would land you in a re-education camp. Fortunately, I was able to assure the senator that I ain't no elite. I'm Irish.

Yes, lads, centuries of oppression, during which we learned to love our liquor and our various sweepstakes. And to hate the British. But that's another story. Or is it?

Bottom line, I'm not anti-lottery if it's for a bit of fun, and everybody chips in so the widow Murphy can keep her farm. I am anti-lottery if the King's gonna get on the telly every day with commercials about my duty to the Crown. There are lotteries and lotteries, in other words.

And what we have so far in the General Assembly, inside the beltline, is a bad lottery deal. Strip away the crapola, and we are on the verge of enacting a $400 million lottery for the state so we can cut taxes for corporations and wealthy people while continuing to overpay the pharmaceutical industry for the prescription drugs we buy for the Medicaid and N.C. Health Choice programs--for poor people and kids, respectively.

That's what's in the Senate budget, just passed with unanimous Democratic support. That and much, much more that isn't so hot. As George Reed, executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches, put it in his newsletter: "This week has been a terribly discouraging one for those of us working for progressive social change in North Carolina."

What was really discouraging, Reed went on: "The budget bill passed in the Senate because all of the state's progressive Senators voted for it. They are not the sort you expect to see voting for cuts in taxes on those who can most afford to pay, for cuts in Medicaid services, for protections for the pharmaceutical companies, for cuts to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, for the lottery, and for all the rest of this bad budget."

Is Reed right? Are our progressive senators the ones to blame for this mess?

Now, here's the truth about the lottery and why two-thirds of the public are for it, brought to you from a rich Republican friend of mine. He doesn't plan to play it. Why should he? So his lottery tax will be zero. But he's happy that others do play, and pay a 50 percent tax in the bargain, because that just means his other taxes are even less. Bottom line, people who play the lottery are for it; and people who don't play it are really for it. But this is true of many things we tax, including alcohol. And since I'm not an elitist, let's assume I would support a state lottery and suffer the $400 million it'd add to King Easley's coffers, if my elected representatives could get me a good deal for their "ayes." What would a good deal be?

For starters, let's not cut the top corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 6.4 percent, as the Senate budget does. Let's not eliminate the .5 percent surtax on couples earning $200,000 and up. Let's do increase the cigarette tax to the national average, which would be a 75-cents hike per pack, instead of the 35 cents the Senate wants--a move that would leave North Carolina, cigtax-wise, tied for last with Kentucky.

With the extra money we'd bring in, let's not slash Medicaid for the poorest of the poor--those in the "aged, blind and disabled" category. Let's agree, as progressive watchdog Chris Fitzsimon details at www.ncpolicywatch.org: to keep the program that puts minor offenders into drug treatment rather than prison; to provide life-saving medications to HIV/AIDS patients who can't afford them; to support innovative affordable-housing initiatives, not with lip service, but $50 million; to offer day-care subsidies to the 30,000 kids who qualify but are currently on a waiting list, and so on.

Notice, I'm not even arguing that we should roll back the '90s tax cuts, nor am I bringing up that old song about taxing services, which is where the rich spend their money these days. I'm not asking for a fair deal, in other words. Just a reasonable one.

Couldn't my Triangle senators--progressives like Ellie Kinnaird of Chapel Hill and Janet Cowell of Raleigh--get me that?

The short answer is: No, they couldn't. The budget would've passed with or without their votes. That's perhaps not what you've read. True, five Democratic senators opposed the lottery in principle, just enough to beat it (if added to the 21 Republican "no"votes.) That's Dan Clodfelter, Martin Nesbitt and Charlie Albertson, if you're keeping score, along with Kinnaird and Cowell. But remember, if any of the five voted yes, the resulting 25-25 tie would've been broken by Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue in favor of the lottery. And, of course, the lottery didn't come up as a free-standing vote. It came up in the budget, at which point Albertson, "looking at the whole picture," parted company with the others. "Weighing it all together," he told me Monday night, he thought the budget package was a reasonable compromise.

Thus, the other four didn't matter. Cowell and Clodfelter, to their credit, actually did support a Republican motion to take the lottery out of the budget bill. Kinnaird and Nesbitt voted against it. Neither was in the Senate Monday night, nor did they return my calls, so I can't say exactly why. But in Kinnaird's case, I can guess. She's bucked the Democratic caucus before on the budget, and they've marginalized her because of it. Why put her neck on the chopping block again--for nothing?

Except honor, perhaps.

Here's the back story. There are no Republican votes available in the Senate for a reasonable budget, or even for the unreasonably cheap and regressive one that Democrats passed last week. The Republicans just sit on their hands and vote no. So passing anything requires at least 25 Democrats to agree. And that's where the log-rolling begins--and the tax-cutting. Because, as Berger says, most of the Democratic senators are conservatives anyway, and at least five of them represent Republican-majority districts. Asking them to be progressive just goes against the grain, not to mention it's a political risk they don't want to take. Push them any further, Berger argues, and they'll either vote with the Republicans for a really bad budget or they'll lose their seats in the next election and then see what you get.

Yeah, OK. So now it's back to the House, which passed the lottery first--as a free-standing bill--by just one vote, and only on the premise that the lottery advertising would be limited and the money used for poor kids' scholarships and new schools in low-wealth counties. Not for tax-cut goodies for the well-off.

So says Raleigh Rep. Deborah Ross, one progressive who voted for the lottery the first time but who said Monday she won't vote for it again if it's packaged, Senate-style, with a bad budget and wide-open ads. "My great hope," she says, "is that the House will do the right thing--restore the human services cuts, a bigger cigarette tax increase, and not tax cuts for the wealthy."

Ours, too.

Contact Bob Geary at rjgeary@mac.com

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