ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp said he remains a staunch opponent of legalized gambling, but signaled he won’t stand in the way of a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to allow casinos in Georgia.
The governor’s spokesman said in a statement Tuesday he “remains opposed to casino gambling but hardworking Georgians will have the ultimate say if a constitutional amendment is placed on the ballot.”
His aides added that Kemp, who campaigned against the expansion of gambling, will insist that the new funds be used for the popular lottery-funded HOPE scholarship if a constitutional amendment passes.
It came after pro-gambling lawmakers, unsure of Kemp’s position on the issue and stung by a string of setbacks, embraced a new strategy.
Rather than outlining specific requirements for “destination resort facilities,” the gambling advocates this year favor a broad constitutional amendment seeking to legalize casinos – and then leaving it to lawmakers to hash out the details later.
Separate measures introduced within the last week in the House and Senate would ask voters the same question: Should casino gambling be legalized to “preserve the long-term financial stability of the HOPE scholarship” and other education programs?
Kemp’s stance seems likely to rev up debate over an issue that its champions feared was effectively dead after his November victory.
During the campaign, Kemp and other Republicans touted their opposition to casinos and other forms of gambling.
The casino industry seemed to get the message.
After years of high-dollar donations to lawmakers, the flow of contributions slowed before this session.
Leading supporters talked of a long-term approach.
Some saw the legalization of horse racing, which recently passed a Senate committee, as a safer bet.
Casino advocates hope that Kemp's stance changes the dynamic.
Since the measure is a constitutional amendment, it wouldn’t require his signature – instead it needs two-thirds support in the Legislature and approval by a majority of voters.
But his position could pave the way for other skeptics of the measure in the Legislature to follow his lead.
What’s not clear is where other legislative leaders stand. House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan both oppose legalized gambling, but it’s not yet known whether they would actively seek to block the legislation from coming to a vote if it first clears key committees.
And supporters are also mindful of then-Gov. Nathan Deal’s policy shift on the issue.
After years of forceful opposition, Deal said in 2017 he won’t oppose legislation to legalize casino gambling as long as it doesn’t “devastate” the HOPE program. Still, the measure failed to gain significant traction.
Opponents of the bill, including many conservative groups and faith leaders, see gambling as an immoral vice and worry that any expansion could breed crime and encourage an addictive habit.
Some Democrats also demand a needs-based college scholarship to win their support.
The measure’s backers say legalizing casinos could create thousands of jobs, attract billions of dollars in investments and pump hundreds of millions into the HOPE program, which funds college scholarships and pre-kindergarten classes.
This article was written by Greg Bluestein, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Cox Media Group