As the legislative session kicks off, leadership in the state House and Senate aren’t agreeing about whether Georgia is ready to consider expanding gambling. While the House seems bent on putting the issue before voters through a referendum, the Senate does not.
State Rep. Ron Stephens led a study committee in the House, which evaluated the merits of casino gambling, horse racing and sports betting. Stephens said traveling around the state, he’s heard support for the idea and the House will “absolutely” move forward with it.
“We’ve got some folks that want to put a billion dollars into an entertainment complex that’ll rival Disney or anything Universal Studios has,” he said. “We need to give them the right to decide themselves, both on the statewide level and the local level. And it’s going to require a vote. Nobody is going to come unless you vote for it.”
“One of these days we’re either going to have to say we’re going to quit talking, or we’re going to vote it, and however it comes out is how it comes out,” he told reporters last week.
“At some point, I think it is appropriate to let the people of Georgia have the final word.”
Across the Capitol in the Senate, leadership isn’t so high on the idea. Leaders of the majority caucus have said it wouldn’t be a priority, and a senate study committee on the topic could not agree on legislative recommendations in December.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who serves as president of the Senate, said he’s heard a different perspective on the issue.
“I’ve not had a line of senators over the last nine months outside of that office try to take the door off the hinges to talk about gambling,” he said. “I just haven’t seen that overwhelming push here in the state of Georgia. I certainly haven’t heard it out as I’ve traveled around the state.”
Stephens in the House said he thinks it makes sense to explore the idea now, particularly since the state is grappling with a revenue shortfall. New gaming could generate more in taxes.
“Bottom line is we need the revenue so, I’m open to suggestions,” he said. “And I’m the only one, I think, that’s stepped up with a revenue enhancement as far as I know.”
Georgia has had legalized gambling for decades, through the state lottery, which funds the HOPE Scholarship and the state Pre-K program.
Any gambling expansion would require a constitutional amendment, which voters need to approve by popular referendum. And Stephens said, it makes the most sense to have all three possible options on one ballot.
“It’s time that we give folks an opportunity to vote,” he said.