Growing old waiting for the state lottery
I’m guessing here, but I think I wrote my first lottery column in or around 1986. Over the ensuing two decades, my position on the issue has remained constant and unwavering. I said it then and I’ll say it now, unequivocally and steadfastly, as far as a state lottery goes ‘— I’m not sure.
The only thing that I’m certain of is that this is one of those issues that refuses to go away, and sooner or later our state legislators are going to have to give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, or at least break out the fence-straddling chafing powder and call for a referendum to let the voters decide. And on this sub-issue I am just as firm as on the larger question: I don’t care; just deal with it one way or the other.
While our august body in Raleigh has been debating (or not debating) this issue, four-fifths of the rest of the country has decided to institute a lottery. Fully 40 states, plus DC, now hold some form of state lottery. The latest to fall was Tennessee, which not only gives North Carolinians three contiguous states to travel to in order to a) throw their money away or b) land on Easy Street, but also makes us the last state on the eastern seaboard that does not sponsor a lottery.
Since, like many of our legislators, I don’t have a strong opinion on the subject, I can take on the mantle of detached observer. I can, on the one hand, accept that our schools could certainly use the millions generated, but I can also see that the amount varies widely, depending on whose figures one uses. Gov. Easley says between $400 and $500 million will go toward education annually, but the John Locke Foundation says it’s more like $285 mil. Regardless, research from other state lotteries indicates that funds sometimes get diverted from education to cover budget shortfalls in other areas and that it is rarely the panacea for all education and budget woes.
So that’s a vote against.
I can also accept the obvious, that our neighboring states are taking money away from us that would be spent here if we had our own lottery. Yet that argument alone does not sway me. Yes, it’s true, but it’s like saying if we didn’t buy all our blue jeans from China, Guilford Mills would still be thriving. You can’t keep all the money in-state any more than you can on the national level.
So that’s another vote against.
The one argument against that I reject hands down is that gambling is a moral issue. If that’s the case, then you’d better shut down the New York Stock Exchange and forget about Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security. Round up all the Catholics sponsoring bingo games and get all that Texas Hold ’em poker off those cable channels. Last one out of Vegas turn off the lights.
So, I guess that’s a vote for.
Now, I have plenty of friends who either drive or send someone to Virginia every weekend to buy lottery tickets, nary a one of them a moral leper. They seem none the poorer for it, and occasionally one of them will win a couple of hundred bucks. So what’s the big deal?
Another vote for. That’s two apiece.
There is one overriding argument against, however, that I keep coming back to: Any way you cut it, this is a regressive tax, a voluntary tax on the poor. Every single bit of research shows that a hugely inordinate amount of lottery revenue comes from the lowest economic strata.
Still, there is a counter argument that says everyone has the right to dream. The odds may be long, but a few folks are going to hit the big one, and it might as well be me. Remember, the saying goes, you’ve got to be in it to win it.
So, another wash, tied at three.
OK, here’s the argument you won’t hear anywhere but here, the one that finally tips the scales for me, if only tepidly. The reason we don’t need the lottery is not that it’s a regressive tax, not that it takes money out of state, but that it diverts money from (drum roll please) pari-mutuel wagering. I’m serious, folks, if you want to gamble, playing the ponies is the way to go.
We missed the boat on this a long time ago ‘— about the time I started writing about it, come to think of it ‘— but, as an economic generator, a first-class horse and dog racing facility, off-track betting, and all the ancillary benefits that accompany thoroughbred horse breeding, far outweigh a crap-shoot like the lottery.
It’s a dead horse now, but I’ll beat it some more next week anyway.
Ogi can be reached at email@example.com and heard each Tuesday at 9:35 a.m. on WGOS 1070 AM.