Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:
The Charlotte Observer on the expansion of state lottery
It was 10 years ago this Sunday that the North Carolina Senate created a state lottery despite the opposition of all 21 Republican members.
How quickly sentiment changes. Now Senate Republicans want to dramatically expand the games their party once opposed.
In August 2005, Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Democrat, announced there would be no more substantive votes before the legislative session ended. Then two Republicans left Raleigh, giving Basnight the crack he needed. He rushed senators into session. They voted 24-24, and then-Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, broke the tie.
Republicans howled over the trickery. They had argued that gambling is immoral, and that the lottery profits might supplant money spent on education rather than add to it.
One of those who said he was blindsided by the move? None other than Sen. Harry Brown. He opposed the lottery, but was on his honeymoon when the vote was cast. Now Brown is among those leading an effort to create more state-sponsored gambling and spend more to market it.
The day the lottery passed, the Observer editorial board wrote this: “Once North Carolina’s lottery gets under way, the state will find, as all others have, that public interest declines in time and so will revenues. To boost them, the state will have to become a carnival barker, aggressively enticing citizens to make sucker bets in order to keep the cash flowing. It won’t be a pretty sight.”
And here we are. The carnival barkers are out, and it’s not pretty. The Senate included in its budget an increase of about 50 percent for lottery advertising. North Carolinians are now able to play the games while they pump gas. And the Senate backs an array of new options, including letting people play instant winner (instant loser?) games on their computers and smartphones. Video gaming terminals could pop up across the state in restaurants, bars and other public places. While legislators have worked to rid the state of the video sweepstakes industry, they are OK with the state sponsoring a video lottery industry.
It’s bad public policy. The original plan called for 50 percent of lottery revenues to be spent on prizes and 35 percent on education. The reality now is 62 percent on prizes and 26 percent on education. And the Republicans of 2005 were right: The money for education supplants other funding rather than augmenting it.
Republican Rep. Skip Stam rightly calls the lottery push “a deceitful way to raise taxes.” And studies show it will be paid by those least able to afford it. Per capita spending on the lottery is generally highest in North Carolina’s poorest counties. (In Halifax County, one of the state’s poorest, lottery sales last year amounted to $468 for each man, woman and child.)
After cutting taxes left and right, legislators find themselves without enough money to pay for teacher assistants and other basics. Unwilling to craft a fair, visionary tax code, they instead grasp for straws, like encouraging ever-more payments from the mathematically challenged.
Winston Salem-Journal on the state crime lab backlog
It’s understandably frustrating for everyone involved: The prosecutors. The defense attorneys. The accused. And the family of the victim. They’re all waiting on evidence from the State Crime Lab, which remains backlogged.
Nearly two years after an Ardmore woman, Shelia Pace Gooden, was shot to death, only one-third of the physical evidence that Winston-Salem police seized in their investigation has been sent to the State Crime Lab, the Journal’s Michael Hewlett reported last week, and not enough of that has been examined.
Three men, Anthony Vinh Nguyen, Daniel Aaron Benson and Steven George Assimos, were charged with first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree burglary and robbery with a dangerous weapon. Nguyen is facing the death penalty.
Analysis is held up because of the backlog at the crime lab.
“At this rate it will take, as a minimum, another year-and-a-half to complete the process,” David Botchin, an attorney representing Nguyen, wrote in a July 29 letter to Jennifer Martin, the chief assistant district attorney who is one of two prosecutors in the case, the Journal reported.
Much of the problem has to do with state crime lab policy aimed at easing backlog: It sets limits on the amount of evidence that law-enforcement agencies are allowed to send at one time. For homicides, it’s 10 pieces of evidence in each discipline for the first submission and five items for subsequent submissions.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the crime lab, told the Journal in emails that the case is complex. Some of the 40 pieces of evidence submitted include multiple items, she said. She indicated that the lab is making progress on that evidence, and wrote that none of the evidence was submitted until October 2014 …
But considering the lengthy delay, the DA’s office should soon let the defense attorneys for all three defendants examine the physical evidence in one viewing, despite the time that will take to ensure that the chain of custody is protected.
The real problem is the continuing backlog in the crime lab.
Crime lab representatives have made the case that they’re dealing with a rising tide of demand. They’ve said that they have inadequate staff and resources and crushing caseloads. They say they’ve lost well-qualified scientists to higher paying jobs elsewhere.
Attorney General Roy Cooper should explore ideas for restructuring analyst caseloads to speed and ease the process.
And most important, the legislature needs to give the crime lab adequate money to hire enough good analysts to relieve this backlog. Justice is waiting.
Greensboro News & Record on sales tax measure
State House lawmakers last week killed an ill-conceived measure that would have significantly shifted sales tax revenue from urban areas to rural ones.
Actually, “killed” isn’t the word. The wealth-redistribution initiative was eviscerated 111-2, meaning that 111 House legislators, Democratic and Republican, voted to send the broader bill that contained the measure back to a joint House-Senate conference committee, where both chambers will attempt to work out their differences.
Every House member from Guilford County rejected the sales-tax scheme. The question now is whether it will stay killed. Some bad bills have a tendency these days to spring back to life “Walking Dead”-style, ripping and tearing at any sense of reasonableness that happens to stand in their way.
Deceptively called the Sales Tax Fairness Act, the proposal would tilt more of the tax revenue away from the place a product or service was sold to rural areas in an effort to help those areas improve their economies. This would come at a steep cost to urban counties such as Guilford, which could lose $750,000 a year. Billed as a way to spread the wealth, the provision would, in time, do quite the opposite, eroding the fiscal health of cities that provide workplaces, infrastructure and centers of commerce for whole regions. Rather than making the pie bigger, this measure merely slices it differently.
The need for more growth in rural areas is without question. But there are more thoughtful ways to do that: strengthen schools, aid small-business development, and allow a statewide referendum for bonds that would pay for roads and other infrastructure.
House Rep. Jon Hardister, a Republican from Greensboro, said in an email Tuesday: “As of now, it doesn’t look like there is enough support in the House to pass the sales tax redistribution. …. It is best to keep the money where it is earned. The current formula of 75-25 (in favor of point-of-sale) conforms with a free market philosophy. and the counties that do the most retail sales have more strain on their infrastructure and emergency services, which costs money.”
The operative words are “As of now,” and you don’t have to look far to see why. A local bill restructuring the Greensboro City Council was rebuffed twice before it was revived in a backroom meeting and railroaded into a law that is now being challenged in court. The same dynamic could be in play on the sales-tax change, which is part of a bill that also contains important economic development incentives. There’s so much horse-trading involved that you can never be sure.
Many lawmakers seem to realize that the sales-tax shift is an unwise proposition that pits rural areas against urban ones. But will they allow its revival in exchange for economic development funding? “You should look at the bill in its entirety,” state Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) told the News & Record’s Richard Barron. “They are together.”
No, they are not. And they don’t have to be. Legislators should stick a fork in the shortsighted sales-tax gambit. And keep it there.
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