RALEIGH – The years-long campaign to create a government lottery in North Carolina undeniably scored a significant victory on Wednesday when the House voted 61-59 to approve a lottery bill (thanks to last-minute switches by several Democratic members who, I hear, felt strong pressure to support Speaker Jim Black and his leadership). But the victory was a tactical one, not yet a strategic one. The bill heads over to the Senate for consideration, where there is at least some possibility of dissension.
For one thing, lottery foes point out that it’s been a long time since a lottery bill has gotten a vote in the Senate. Furthermore, there appear to be at least five Democrats currently serving in the chamber who were lottery opponents in the past. Add those to the 21 Republicans in the Senate (and I’m guessing they will be more unified in opposition than House Republicans were) and you have 26 votes against the bill.
Of course, that scenario assumes that none of the Senate Democrats in question has changed his mind, or won’t do so if Senate leader Marc Basnight, Rules Chairman Tony Rand, or others start twisting arms. Perhaps this scenario is not, in itself, scary to lottery supporters.
But toss this into the mix. The lottery bill passed in the House includes some apparently stringent – but in reality unsustainable – language that prohibits large-scale advertising and the use of lottery process to supplant current education revenues. On another issue, though, the language is far more permissive. The bill gives a yet-to-be-named lottery commission the ability to decide what games of chance will be allowed to operate under the aegis of the North Carolina Lottery, including "online games, games played on computer terminals, and games played in other states."
Remember a certain issue called video poker? In the past, Basnight and other powerful Senate Democrats took the lead in calling for strict regulation, if not absolute bans, on video poker parlors in North Carolina. They argued that these forms of gambling were exploitative and far worse than selling lottery tickets. Under the House bill, however, there appears to be no bar to a state lottery commission setting up the equivalent of state-run video-poker parlors or online casinos. Will this sweeping grant of power to let government be in the gambling business big-time go too far for some senators?
Perhaps. And if, to address that, they amend the bill to restrict what kinds of games a North Carolina Lottery can use, then the two versions may have to go to conference, generating a fresh bill for the House to vote on. Right after Wednesday’s 61-59 approval of the House lottery bill on second reading, Speaker Black moved to waive the constitutional rule that a revenue bill be read on three separate days and instead held an immediate voice vote to give final approval. Republican Rep. Skip Stam of Wake County objected, then asked for recognition for a point of order. If he were following proper procedure, Black would have recognized him. But he did not. He knew that another high-stakes vote on the House floor might tip back the other way.
The odds of a government lottery starting up soon in North Carolina clearly increased substantially with the House floor victory. But it’s not a lock.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.