FLORENCE GILKESON: Bad Bet: Sure Enough, State Lottery Is Falling Short
It's tempting to say, "I told you so."
Instead, I'll just recall predictions that the state lottery would not bring a windfall for North Carolina schools.
In a thorough examination of the lottery's first fiscal year, The News & Observer of Raleigh recently reported the likelihood that total sales may be $200 million below the forecast. That translates into $75 million state officials had expected to earmark for the schools.
The article by J. Andrew Curliss quotes officials as surprised at the poor response to the lottery in the first year. After all, people were clamoring for a lottery. They were vociferously complaining about traveling to South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee to buy lottery tickets.
Gambling is big business. If we pretend that the big boys are concentrated in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and around the Native American casinos, we fool ourselves. Gamblers, big and small, are everywhere.
People sign up yearly for cruises with on-board casinos. Others take vacations to Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Many of these folks are not gambling addicts. To them it's recreation.
They come in all sizes, shapes, sexes, ethnic groups, and from all economic levels, even the rich.
So why did these people not flock to the closest convenience store to buy lottery tickets?
The people interviewed by Curliss cited several reasons: a sluggish economy, high gas prices and comparatively modest prizes. Oh, and they also mentioned a paucity of outlets.
One omission is a little fact that I know about North Carolina, especially this section of the state: We are peopled with Scots. Through the ages, the Scottish blood has been depleted by mixing with the Irish, Welsh, Germans, English, Netherlanders (I'm not sure that's the correct word, but my now-deceased friends in Bovenkarspel, The Netherlands objected strenuously to being called Dutch), Scandinavians, French, Spanish and so forth. Nevertheless, the Scots have managed to maintain their reputation for frugality.
When I first moved to Laurinburg (in Scotland County), I was told that one reason candidates for public office often waited to file until the morning before the filing period ended was frugality. They saw no point in paying the filing fee weeks in advance of the deadline, even if it was as little as $5.
Now none of this palaver is helping to solve the problem of our bulging school buildings.
Lottery experts were saying that North Carolina has not made the lottery attractive enough. Up to this point, the lottery has not offered large enough prizes to entice the public, and there has been a paucity of big winners.
Many people said North Carolina entered the lottery picture too late. It's true that North Carolinians were flocking to lottery outlets in neighboring states to satisfy their urges. It's true that much of that money was being poured into South Carolina and Virginia.
But now, are they flocking to stores in North Carolina? Apparently not. For one thing, we suspect that the market in neighboring states is about saturated, and while our lottery may be draining some of their customers, it's not creating many new customers.
Lottery Commission members are scratching their heads for ways to make the state's so-called "education lottery" more profitable. They'll be looking at ways to make games more appealing, adding new games and upping the prizes. I hope they don't pull a cigarette promotion tactic and try to attract more young people to gambling -- a questionable way to get young people to pay for their own education.
State officials say that so far the lottery has garnered about $350 million for education, much lower than the projected $425 million.
Calling the lottery an education lottery was an unfunny joke from the beginning. Now comes this proof, for even if the projection had materialized in those first months, $425 million is just a drizzle drozzle in the ocean of education need across North Carolina.
Moore County alone needs $144 million in the next 12 years. Wake County, our huge neighbor to the northeast, now reports $1 billion in school building needs. That's the county that passed a multi-million dollar school bond issue just a year ago.
I repeat my objections to a lottery: North Carolina can support quality education without turning to gambling as the source of funding.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at florence@ thepilot.com.
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