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N.C. Lottery misunderstandings could derail bonds

Dec 26, 2005, 9:33 am

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North Carolina Lottery

The new North Carolina lottery is supposed to help fund education, but local school officials and advocates are worried that the newly created state game could shut off a vital source of funding.

"Our worry is that the public will see the lottery as being this great boon and will say, 'Well, we don't need to vote for this bond. The lottery will take care of it,' " said Margaret Arbuckle, director of the Guilford Education Alliance, a business group that is a booster for public schools.

Bonds are nearly always controversial because each new bond issue typically brings about a corresponding tax increase. The lottery, Arbuckle and others worry, could give voters one more excuse to not pass bonds.

It's happened before.

After the creation of the Florida lottery in 1986, only three of 15 bond issues proposed by local school districts were approved by voters. Before the lottery, 21 of 22 had been approved.

Many said that Florida voters were too optimistic about the lottery's ability to fund education after being fed a steady diet of lobbying and advertisements on behalf of the game.

An informal survey of News & Record readers found mixed attitudes. Some said they would continue to look at each bond proposal as it came. But several said they would vote against any future school bond issue after the lottery began giving money to education.

"The lottery is supposed to take care of the schools if they use the money like they said they would," said Ouida Campbell, an accountant at a Greensboro nursing home. "From talking to people who lived up in the North, the lottery was the best thing that ever happened for the schools up there."

North Carolina's lottery law sets aside a share of the proceeds for school construction, the same thing that local school districts use bonds to pay for.

Under the current distribution formula, Guilford County would get about $10 million a year for school construction. That's almost enough to build an elementary school.

But according to district officials, Guilford's school population is growing by 1,500 students or more annually, enough to fill three elementary schools.

Voter-approved bond issues in 2000 and 2004 authorized the district to borrow about $500 million for construction. But that's only half of what amounts to a $1 billion building program that will likely require the district to ask the voters for more borrowing power in 2007 or 2008.

Guilford County Schools Superintendent Terry Grier said that he too is worried about the lottery's effect on voter attitudes.

"That's a huge concern on our part," Grier said. "It's going to take a great deal of effort on our part to get the message out."

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