What are the four words in public policy that we never want to say? You guessed it, the words, “We told you so.” The state lottery is a good example. We spent years compiling research on gambling based on the experience of states that had adopted a lottery long before the 2005 General Assembly voted to put our state in the gambling business. Our research showed the impact a lottery would have on society and the trouble that would come from the development of addicted gamblers. We showed how even as gambling revenues were unstable, states were always under pressure to raise more money for more programs and often turned to gambling to pay for such. We pointed out how a relatively small number of gamblers (five percent) would account for more than their fair share (50 percent) of lottery ticket purchases. We showed how the principal beneficiaries of the lottery would be the companies and workers in the gambling industry and that the funds to schools were minimal when compared to overall education expenditures. We showed how $1.5 billion in lottery sales would simply displace other retail sales. We touted quotes from the casino gambling industry stating that once a state adopts a lottery, they lose the moral high ground to keep out other forms of gambling.
But our arguments did not prevail, and by hook or crook, the 2005 General Assembly, with the encouragement of then Gov. Mike Easley (D) and the tie-breaking vote of then Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D), passed the bill that put our state in the gambling business. The ensuing lawsuit, charging that the General Assembly violated the North Carolina Constitution when passing the bill, went all the way to the State Supreme Court where it lost on a 3 to 3 decision.
In between the lottery’s passage and now, we worked with various leaders in the General Assembly, both Democrat and Republican, to eliminate video poker and its counterpart “sweepstakes video poker” from North Carolina. We realize that many legislative battles worth fighting also require constant vigilance and effort over many years.
Now seven years later, we have watched our predictions about the lottery and gambling come true in our beloved state. Gambling addiction has certainly increased in North Carolina. Yesterday, marveling at the variety of lottery ticket choices in the clear plastic display case at the convenience store checkout counter, I asked the clerk if many people bought lottery tickets. He laughed and said, “They sure do and they always lose their money. I just laugh at them.” But losing money is no laughing matter if you are poor, and, particularly, if you are addicted. A couple of weeks ago, I was behind a man at the checkout in another convenience store. As he handed the clerk a $20 bill for lottery tickets, he commented, “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” You have probably witnessed similar experiences.
Shift from the lottery to casino gambling and the recently concluded 2012 legislative session. Our heads are still spinning from the decided shift to favor gambling that came from the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate. We never had a chance when the Senate took up and passed on the first day, a bill to approve a new compact with the Cherokee to allow them to add Class III (Las Vegas style) gambling to their existing video poker casino and to build more casinos to boot. Some legislators used “the state is already gambling” defense as an excuse to vote in the 2012 session for gambling expansion for the Cherokee Tribe. Others argued that video poker machines would be replaced with live table games that are less addictive. Still other pro-gambling legislators argued that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation and should be able to do whatever they wanted, even if all of their tribal lands were located within the borders of North Carolina. Some even claimed that the $3 million or so in projected annual contributions from the Cherokee to the state was an important factor. Others said that the several hundred jobs for the live table games were worth their vote.
Pro-family supporters and gambling opponents put up a valiant fight against allowing the Cherokee to expand their gambling. As with the lottery, our research categorized the problems that would come from expanded gambling for the Cherokee. In the end, our efforts were not enough. Unless the federal government finds flaws in the Compact or in the manner it was negotiated, we will have Las Vegas style gambling in our state for at least the next three decades. But 10 or 20 years from now, as we see more addicted gamblers, and more problems that result from the Cherokee gambling expansion, there will be no joy in saying, “We told you so.”