Ga. House speaker on gambling: ‘There’s an appetite to let the people vote.’

The push to legalize gambling in Georgia picked up another key supporter when House Speaker David Ralston said though he has "serious concerns," he won't block a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide on whether to allow casinos.

The Republican told Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Lawmakers” that he’s “hearing from House members and people around the state that there’s an appetite to let the people vote” on the issue. He suggested it could reach a full House vote next week.

“I have some serious concerns, on a personal level, on gambling. But I have to set those aside and recognize there’s actually a tremendous amount of support around the state for having one or two casinos here in Georgia,” he said in the interview, which aired Thursday.

That makes him the third powerful Republican official to pave the way for a possible gambling vote. Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan both told the AJC this week that they won't stand in the way of the constitutional amendment even though they personally oppose it.

More: Are casinos in Georgia’s future? Kemp cracks the door open

It’s a major development for pro-gambling advocates, since the effort needs the tacit blessing of each of the three men even if it doesn’t need their outright support.

Duncan and Ralston control which proposals reach a vote in the Senate and the House. And though the plan won't require signature, Kemp could use his bully pulpit to effectively doom it.

But each of their statements indicate they will not actively block it, leaving open the possibility that lawmakers will soon weigh the plan. It would require two-thirds support in each chamber of the Legislature and approval by a majority of voters in a November 2020 referendum to pass.

The push to legalize gambling has become a perennial effort under the Gold Dome that sputtered for years despite promises of glitzy billion-dollar investmentscampaign donationspersonal appeals from gambling moguls and the promise of a new cash infusion for the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship.

This year gambling advocates embraced a new strategy to try to win over skeptical Georgia politicians. Rather than outlining specific requirements for "destination resort facilities," they have centered on a broader push to legalize casinos first and leave the details for later.

And lawmakers have been peppered with the results of a poll conducted by casino advocates this month that showed a broad majority of voters supports the idea of a referendum on gambling.

Separate measures introduced within the past 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?

Critics 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.

In the interview, Ralston said he expects the House measure to soon emerge from a committee, leaving House leaders to decide whether to bring it for a vote before the “crossover day” deadline on Thursday.

“Then we’ll sit down one more time to determine the level of support for a vote on the floor,” Ralston said, “and if we determine that it’s there we’ll offer it up for the members to make a decision on.”

The Republican was then asked by the host, Scott Slade, to sum up his stance.

“It’s important that the people have a voice,” Ralston said, “and they can do that through the constitutional amendment process.”