Lawmakers debate the ‘how’ of casinos, putting off ‘should’ until later

In the normal course of life at the state Capitol, gambling bills are nothing but clay pigeons.

They are tossed skyward, then blown to smithereens by small teams of preachers armed with something better than shotguns – promises of church-fueled retribution back home.

But on Monday, and then again on Tuesday, a flock of gambling pigeons took flight. And nary a shot rang out.

Over two days, a special House-Senate committee tasked with the examination of a measure to permit a certain number of casinos in Georgia heard from witness after witness.

A marketing specialist explained why gaming firms were drooling – metro Atlanta is one of the last casino-free big markets in the country, he said.

Lawmakers also heard from Jim Murren, the CEO and president of the world’s largest gaming company, MGM Resorts International of Las Vegas. Murren casually mentioned that he could see his company making a billion-dollar investment in Atlanta.

Senators and House members even listened to one fellow wax eloquent about chaplains at horse-racing tracks. (We will pause here for certain members of the clergy to note that, while they have never bowed heads with a horse, they have prayed with many a horse’s behind.)

What lawmakers didn’t hear was a single voice of dissent. Not that one didn’t exist. In fact, several sat fuming in the bleachers, complaining that they had been closed out of the discussion. They will get their chance at future hearings, we were assured.

But that is what made this two-day session so unusual. For the first time, Republican and Democratic lawmakers explored the idea of how casino gaming might be introduced into Georgia before they addressed the question of whether it should. No shotguns were allowed.

Those attempting to explain the changed climate might be tempted to point to the money. When a man utters the phrase “billion-dollar development,” it is only polite to hear him out. Criticism can come after he and his wallet are out of earshot.

But casino executives and their lobbyists don’t create cultural shifts. They merely take advantage of them. If Georgia lawmakers are willing to entertain the idea of casinos, it is because they fear something far worse than gambling – and that is the disappearance of a middle-class necessity. The affordable college education.

One giveaway was the name of the gaming committee: The House-Senate Study Committee on the Preservation of the HOPE Scholarship. We have been here before. in 2011, Gov. Nathan Deal led an effort to restructure the HOPE program, reducing its scope in the name of solvency.

This week, several state officials laid the groundwork with their testimony, including Debbie Alford, CEO of the Georgia Lottery Corp. If you read between the lines of their PowerPoint presentations, you quickly figured out that the cost of college and the amount that the HOPE program can cover will continue to diverge. Casinos are one way to increase the size of the HOPE pot. At least for a while.

By some national estimates, even after controlling for inflation, the cost of a public university degree has increased fourfold since 1974. In the last five years alone, tuition at Georgia Tech has increased 41.5 percent. At the University of Georgia, it’s jumped 36.5 percent. At all of the state’s colleges and universities, the average is 21 percent.

College loan debt has begun to define us. Millennials are slower to start families or buy houses, in large part because of their debt load. Their aversion to cars and preference for mass transit can be traced, at least in part, to monthly payments that must go elsewhere.

During one break in the hearings, I sat down with state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna. She wasn’t on the gaming committee, but is a co-sponsor of the casino bill – and so was in the audience both days. Evans said she often spoke to older Georgians – like the one in front of her – who put themselves through college with part-time jobs.

“That’s a world that doesn’t exist anymore. You just can’t do it,” Evans said. She has been an advocate for needs-based college scholarships, but it’s an uphill struggle when middle-class kids are desperate for the same dollars.

This isn’t just a Georgia problem. In the presidential contest, Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have announced plans for increased federal funding for college tuition – with various degrees of specificity.

The issue has gone largely unaddressed on the Republican side, save for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who touts heavy cuts he made to higher education in his state.

When he was governor of Texas, Rick Perry introduced the $10,000 bachelor’s degree in his state, with limited success. But Perry quit the GOP presidential contest last week.

The future of casino gambling in Georgia is far from certain. State Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, who chairs the panel, said lawmakers may decide to make no decision.

But if they punt on slot machines, the college tuition problem will still be there, waiting to be addressed. And mere hope won’t be enough.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.