Conservatives fear gambling vote heralds culture shift

It began with a wave of Georgia communities approving Sunday alcohol sales over the past year. That's when the Georgia Christian Coalition first began worrying the state was on the cusp of a cultural shift.

Then last Tuesday's vote may have confirmed it. A narrow majority of the state's Republican voters voiced support what was once unthinkable: Casino gambling.

"One of us is out of step. Either it's the Christian Coalition or the folks that do the voting," said Jerry Luquire, the group's president. He's resigned to the belief that he's on the losing side of that equation. "The public had a chance to speak. And the results speak for themselves."

The non-binding vote has left social conservatives and analysts puzzling over whether the surprising GOP show of support for casino gambling to fund education was a sign of a lasting shift or a fleeting blip on the radar. Far from the blowout that many expected, a slim majority of Republican voters answered "yes" to the question.

Few expect the vote to erode the long-held opposition to gambling in the Legislature, and some credit the victory to the HOPE scholarship's financial woes. After Tuesday's vote, Gov. Nathan Deal said again he wouldn't support casinos in Georgia, and pointedly reminded it would take a much bigger margin — a two-thirds vote from legislators and then majority approval among all voters — to clear the way for full-fledged Las Vegas-style casinos to take root here.

"I think you will not see that happen," he said.

But the outcome, the first statewide question on gambling since voters approved the lottery in 1992, is the latest in a string of recent news that has buoyed gambling supporters.

Developer Dan O'Leary has traveled the state investing time and treasure to build support for a $1 billion gambling resort featuring video lottery terminals. Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers became the highest-profile advocate of expanding gambling over the summer. And Deal endorsed online lottery ticket sales last month to bolster the cash-strapped HOPE scholarship.

The developments have started to worry some social conservatives. State GOP chair Sue Everhart, who is staunchly against O'Leary's proposal, is also peeved at the governor's support for online lottery sales, which she calls an "awful" idea.

"What's to stop a kid from logging in as their parents and then losing money? I think there's no control over it," said Everhart. "I think online gambling is as bad as it gets."

Some other social conservatives hoped that a resounding "no" vote on the question would end the debate over expanding gambling for good, and even supporters like O'Leary hedged their bets by publicly predicting defeat. But what is certain after Tuesday's vote is that the debate is far from over.

"It's not about to end anytime soon. You've got to face reality. People are going to Biloxi and they're going up to Cherokee and these tourism dollars are going elsewhere," said Everhart. She said she doesn't think a full-fledged casino will be built here any time soon, but that the vote sent the signal that "if we had a choice between video gambling and casinos, we'd much rather have a casino."

Just as telling was the muted reaction to Rogers' decision to vote "yes" on the question. The Woodstock Republican, who defeated a challenger in Tuesday's contest, said he believed "people should be allowed to govern themselves until they violate someone else's rights."

"When you have a Republican leader, Rogers, openly supporting a change like this, you know how the culture of the GOP is changing," said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist.

O'Leary said his plan for video lottery terminals, which are like computerized slot machines, wouldn't need legislative approval and would funnel $350 million each year into the HOPE scholarship. Unable to keep up with rising tuition and swelling enrollment, the lottery-funded program no longer covers full tuition for most students.

"The cultural shift took place not just recently, but years back," said O'Leary, who is seeking approval for his project by the year's end. "But the politicians of Georgia are just now catching up to where the voters of Georgia are. And that's because there's never been an avenue for elected officials to hear from their constituents on this issue."

The "yes" vote won by a margin of about 5,000 votes — out of nearly 1 million votes cast — fueled by support across parts of metro Atlanta, Columbus and Athens as well as stretches of north and west Georgia. It lost in Macon, Savannah and Augusta, as well as most of south Georgia. It also was defeated by a few hundred votes in Gwinnett County, where O'Leary would build his complex.

The vote came after a spate of cities and counties across Georgia voted to allow Sunday alcohol sales, despite concerns from social conservative critics it would sully the Sabbath.

Expect more politicians to come forward with their support for video gambling, O'Leary said.

"There are a number of elected officials and organizations that have been quietly supportive of our cause that this vote may give them the courage to come out and be public about it now because they see it's the will of the people," he said.

Some social conservative opponents of gambling urged residents not to read too much into the vote.

"Whenever you tie something good to something bad, it makes even vice more attractive than it appears," said Tim Echols, a Republican member of the Public Service Commission who is also leading an anti-gambling initiative. "That is what has happened here."

He tried to put a positive spin on it, saying he doubted that it will change the minds of any legislators who oppose expanding gambling.

"I had hoped we could soundly defeat the measure and send a clear message, but 50 percent is the next best thing."

Others were much more fatalistic.

"We cannot hide our heads in the sand. That's what people say they want. The question was very clear. There was no ambiguity," said Luquire. "It provides cover for the legions in Georgia that want gambling, and I think it will come. I see it as a forgone conclusion."

He took a deep breath, before adding: "I think even now folks are polishing their dice."

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