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Still no consensus in N.C. lottery talks

Aug 2, 2005, 8:42 am

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North Carolina Lottery

Differences over a proposed North Carolina lottery surfaced from the budget negotiations Monday, as time dwindled before an end-of-the-week deadline to approve a spending plan for state government.

North Carolina is the only East Coast state without a numbers game, but House and Senate leaders and Gov. Mike Easley — all Democrats — are trying to create one before the Legislature adjourns for the year.

The House passed a lottery game in April by a two-vote margin. But the Senate approved a budget proposal in May that didn't create a lottery; rather it eliminated an advertising ban and adjusted how net profits would be distributed, but only if that House bill ultimately passed.

Lawmakers for weeks have largely dismissed talk about lottery negotiations during the budget process, focusing on questions on health and education programs and state employee compensation.

But Senate leader Marc Basnight and House Speaker Jim Black both acknowledged Monday that the lottery was playing a role in finalizing a budget that could pass both chambers.

"It'd be hard for us to a pass a lottery (again) in any form," Black told reporters after meeting with Basnight on Monday afternoon.

Basnight said the Senate wants lottery language in the bill. The question is "will the House allow it to say in the budget," he added.

Black predicted the only way a lottery can pass in the House is by persuading a handful of Democrats to agree to compromise language in the budget bill over spending the money. Then the Senate would have to approve the House stand-alone bill without any changes.

Changing how to spend the net revenues may be difficult. The House wanted money going to college scholarships, public school construction and other education programs. The Senate eliminated the scholarship idea and put aside money specifically for Easley's pet education initiatives.

Easley, who has sought a lottery since taking office in 2001, also wants minor changes to the stand-alone House bill. The governor would be asked to sign lottery and budget bills into law.

Black suggested that six to eight House Democrats who don't like any lottery language in the budget might be persuaded if Easley backs off his self-imposed spending cap in some areas. The cap, which would limit spending from last year's budget to increase by no more than 5.6 percent, has forced negotiations to make tens of millions of dollars in spending cuts to programs dear to House members.

Easley and legislative leaders have different views on what spending items should be considered in the cap.

"The cap is like beauty. It's all in the eyes of the beholder," Black said.

Lawmakers are trying to assemble a two-year budget by Friday, when a stopgap spending measure to keep state government running during the negotiations expire. A budget was supposed to be in place by July 1.

Black and Basnight said a final agreement would have to be finalized by late Tuesday or Wednesday in order to pass it in two required votes by Friday. Otherwise, another so-called "continuing resolution" would have to be approved.

Legislators are starting to get antsy over the delays and the public's reaction to it, Black said. Basnight said legislators also are "well fed up with being here, spending their summers here."

Basnight said there may be a narrow window to pass a spending plan at this time.

"There's a good possibility that we'd get it this week or a couple of months from now," he said.

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