When announcing the recent problems with the state budget last week, Easley once again called on state legislators to pass a lottery when they reconvene in late May.
A major platform goal of Easley's 2000 campaign for governor was instituting a state lottery to fund education.
Easley's press secretary, Fred Hartman, said the budget deficit could enhance the chance of a lottery referendum passing the N.C. General Assembly because legislators will be looking for new revenue sources to avoid tax increases to fund early childhood education programs.
Legislators passed a tax increase in 2001 to help balance the budget, which included several education programs. North Carolina was the only state to raise sales and income taxes to fill a budget gap this year.
"The legislature is going to have to make a decision in May," Hartman said. "Are you going to raise taxes, which isn't voluntary, or allow the lottery, which is voluntary?"
Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, a leading lottery supporter in previous years, said he will introduce a lottery referendum bill when legislators return May 28 for the short session.
"Bill drafting is already working on it," he said. "We're ready to go."
Owens introduced a similar lottery bill last year. He said he is optimistic about the odds of his bill passing this session.
"I think this is the best chance ever to have a lottery come up and be voted on and the best chance ever to have a lottery pass," he said.
Owens added that the introduction of a S.C. lottery in January also will increase the chance of a lottery referendum making it through the General Assembly. He said legislators who live along the N.C. border with Virginia, a lottery state, already experience pressure from constituents to pass a lottery.
"Now the legislators on the South Carolina border will have the same pressure," Owens said.
But he added that he is uncertain how heavily the budget deficit will weigh on legislators' decision about the lottery. "It will have some effect but not a major effect in my opinion."
House Minority Leader Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, said he does not know what impact the state budget deficit will have on the lottery issue but said instituting a lottery is not the solution to the state's financial woes.
Daughtry said several states with lotteries, such as Virginia, are in similar or worse budget situations than North Carolina. "The lottery is not going to help that any," he said. "The lottery is not a good idea."
UNC political science Professor Thad Beyle said it is too early to tell how a lottery might fare in the General Assembly this year.
"I think that's pretty much up in the air," he said. "We're surrounded by lottery states this year."
Beyle said the budget deficit might cause legislators to eye the lottery more favorably as a potential revenue source.
But he added that a lottery would not be an immediate source of funds for the state.
"It takes a while to set up a lottery, and by that time, the economy may have turned around," he said.
Beyle added that other factors, including this being an election year, could have a significant impact on whether a lottery referendum passes.
He said that while public opinion polls show most N.C. residents favor a lottery, passing one could galvanize anti-lottery bases and threaten incumbents' chances of being re-elected. "It just depends on how (legislators) come down on it and how people feel about it."
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