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Wednesday, 05 April 2006 00:00

Lottery funding formula needs to be changed now

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It’s past time to keep rehashing the same old arguments about whether having a state lottery is a good idea. It’s on the books and operating now, and it’s impossible to imagine ever going backward.

What voters in Western North Carolina can and should do, however, is take the time to thoroughly understand the funding scenario lawmakers passed last year and then convince them of the need to make some fundamental changes. Mountain residents are getting short-changed, and somehow our lawmakers let legislative leaders from the East get away with it.

Here’s how the money will be spent. At least 35 percent of the lottery proceeds will go toward education, a figure that is expected to reach $420 million in the 2006-2007 fiscal year. Half of the education money will go toward Gov. Mike Easley’s pet project — reducing class size in the the early grades, which is an honorable proposal and one that should pay tangible benefits for decades to come.

In addition, 10 percent of the take will provide scholarships to students who have already qualified for Pell Grants. These are grants awarded to low-income students based on the financial circumstances of their parents. In other words, those who will have a hard time paying for college will get access to one more avenue of funding.

It’s the remainder of the money — 40 percent — that’s at issue. This money is to be used for building projects, but part of it — 35 percent of the capital projects total — will given to counties whose property tax rate is higher than the state average. If a county’s tax rate is below the state average, it doesn’t get any.

But here’s the rub: none of the 22 westernmost counties will qualify for this portion of the lottery proceeds. Sen. Tony Rand, D-Fayetteville, convinced lawmakers to choose this funding formula. It was supposed to help poor counties who are forced to impose a heavy tax burden on their citizens.

Instead, it’s a clear slap at Western North Carolina. To assume that many of our school systems and residents aren’t struggling to make ends meet is ludicrous. Many mountain counties — Swain, Graham, Watauga, to name three — are way above the state average in unemployment rates. We’ve lost a lot of jobs, as anyone who reads the newspapers knows. Take away the effect the retirement income of many seasonal residents has on the overall numbers, and the average income of many mountain counties would fall way below the state average.

The truth is that the property tax rate is just one measure of wealth and prosperity of a county. When Mecklenburg, Wake and Forsyth counties are in line to get this money and Haywood, Jackson and Swain are not, then it is obvious that the money is not going to be distributed equitably.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, suggests waiting a little while before trying to rectify this problem. We disagree. The mountain-area representatives and senators should arrive in Raleigh for the 2006 short session with a proposal already developed to change the lottery funding formula. One year of this money going unfairly to the rich counties of the Piedmont is just too much to swallow.

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