By Dave Williams
Capitol Beat News Service
ATLANTA - A proposal asking Georgia voters whether to legalize casinos, horse racing and sports betting in the Peach State is back on the table in the General Assembly.
The House Regulated Industries Committee approved a resolution Monday calling for a statewide referendum on all three forms of legalized gambling. The same panel approved a gambling vote in March, but it failed to reach the House floor for a vote before lawmakers took a three-month break to discourage the spread of coronavirus.
While that seemed to doom the measure for this year, it’s back up for debate during the final week of the 2020 legislative session because supporters inserted it into another proposed constitutional amendment identical to legislation that already had gained final passage.
Lawmakers have been debating legalized gambling in Georgia for years, arguing among other things that voters deserve the chance to decide the issue once and for all.
“Whether you’re for or against the bill, allow the people to vote,” Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, a leading supporter of legalized gambling, told committee members Monday.
Stephens, chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, has pitched legalized gambling throughout the years-old debate on the issue as a way to attract tourists and conventions to Georgia.
The state needs a boost to its economy particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced businesses across Georgia to close their doors, he said.
Stephens said casinos, racetracks and sports betting also would inject needed additional revenue into Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs.
The percentage of student tuition HOPE covers has been declining in recent years because of pressure on the lottery-funded program’s revenues resulting from growing enrollment in Georgia’s public colleges and universities.
The proposed constitutional amendment would create a fund that would cover the difference between HOPE scholarship awards and the actual cost of tuition for Georgia students from families earning below 50% of the state’s median income, Stephens said. A separate fund supported by gambling proceeds would help prop up the state’s budget reserves, he said.
If voters approve the statewide referendum, Stephens noted, no casino, racetrack or sports betting parlor could be built in a community without the approval of local voters in a second referendum.
“It can’t come to your backyard until your backyard wants it,” he said.
As has been the case since Georgia lawmakers started talking about legalizing gambling, opposition has been spearheaded by faith-based groups.
Virginia Galloway, regional field director of the Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition, said gambling brings crime and corruption to states where it’s legal.
“Any state that’s got gambling in it, you probably wouldn’t want to live,” Galloway told the committee. “I don’t want my state to become Louisiana, New Jersey [or] Illinois.”
The measure the House committee passed Monday is one of two 11th-hour efforts in the General Assembly to move forward on legalized gambling. A bill that would allow sports betting in Georgia cleared a state Senate committee last Friday.
(Capitol Beat is a nonprofit news service operated by the Georgia Press Educational Foundation that provides coverage of state government through Georgia Press Association members, such as the White County News.)