BY JEFF JAMES
I get asked at least once a week about the N.C. Education Lottery. I’m reminded of that old Wendy’s commercial that begs the important question: “Where’s the Beef?” Let us explore the “Rest of the Story.” The N.C. Education Lottery was created in 2005 when Gov. Mike Easley signed the North Carolina State Lottery Act and the 2005 Appropriations Act into law. Initially, 35 percent of lottery proceeds were required to go to education.
I recall one of Iredell County’s former legislators calling to talk about the lottery. At the time, I struggled with the state embarking on this venture. As a taxpayer, I was concerned that surrounding states had a lottery and North Carolina didn’t. As a result, our neighboring states were taking money out of the pockets of North Carolinians who chose to play the lottery. The legislator and I talked for some time, and he finally convinced me that this money would not be earmarked as additional education funding, but used to supplant existing dollars. I am not sure his vision of coming was prophetic, but he was sure he was correct.
I decided I would support an education lottery in North Carolina so that additional dollars would help our state provide a better education for its students.
In 2007, the legislature changed this requirement to a guideline. Today, there is no legislation safeguarding lottery funds for strictly educational purposes. Today, less than 30 percent of lottery revenue is allocated for education spending. The remaining revenue goes to prize money, retailer compensation, and other expenses.
Like a David Copperfield magic trick, our state government changed the purpose of the lottery funds. We’ve watched education lottery funds drop almost yearly. Currently, the N.C. Education Lottery awards only 26 percent of their return to Education.
The intent was good, but the lottery’s execution has failed our education system. While there were those who genuinely believed this would significantly improve education funding at the state level and relieve local taxes to support education, that simply isn’t the case in 2021. The N.C. Education Lottery states that education in Iredell County gets nearly $10 million. The only evidence we see of this is in scholarships and approximately $2 million in capital funding.
As a result of the Leandro vs. North Carolina lawsuit, a case brought against the State of North Carolina back in 1997, our state government is now under a court mandate to increase education funding. This case has been a battle for almost 25 years. Had we supplemented our education system with the lottery, we were told this case would have most likely been resolved. It will, unfortunately, continue to play out in the courts and cost the taxpayers in the end. Leandro, if nothing else, defined what a “Sound Basic Education looks like.”
Our N.C. Education Lottery needs to be used as we were told it would be; doing so would undoubtedly lessen the local tax burden. It is the state’s constitutional obligation to fund all curriculum and personnel to teach. It is our county’s obligation to provide a space to learn and maintain it. This has shifted to the point where local expenses are 75-80 percent of the budget, not capital.
As a taxpayer, I am always curious about the billions of state income tax dollars we send to the state and our investment return. What percentage of the state taxes that we pay come back to our county? I believe we have a right to know the amount, but my attempts to get this information, as well as financial statements to show lottery proceeds to our county, have failed.
Dr. Jeff James is the superintendent of Iredell-Statesville Schools.