Most Georgia voters support legalizing casino gambling and sports betting, according to statewide poll results released Friday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The poll indicates that if state lawmakers put gambling on the ballot, voters might approve expanding it beyond the Georgia Lottery. The General Assembly is expected to consider proposals this year that would ask voters to amend the state Constitution and expand gambling.
Expanded gambling was one of several key issues the AJC asked Georgia voters about as this year’s legislative session begins. The poll also found out what Georgians think about proposals for tighter seat belt laws, gun control and income taxes.
Overall, respondents indicated they were satisfied with the state’s economy and its legislators. More than 58% described the economy as good or excellent, and 52% approved of the way the General Assembly is handling its job.
Gambling is expected to be one of the most debated issues at the Capitol this year amid public support and lawmakers’ efforts to raise money for a tightening state budget.
About 64% of voters surveyed said they’re in favor of allowing casino gambling in Georgia. That’s slightly up from 62% of voters polled in 2016, the last time the AJC questioned voters about casinos. And 57% of respondents said they back legalized betting on professional sporting events, according to the AJC poll.
“If people want to blow their money, let them. I’m OK with it,” said Michael Morris, who works in information technology in Bonaire. “I’m not going to do it, but if someone else does, go for it. I believe there should be no laws written designed to protect a person against themselves.”
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Others were more reluctant to embrace an expansion of gambling in Georgia. The only gambling allowed in Georgia is through the state’s lottery, which voters approved in a referendum in 1992, with its proceeds supporting the HOPE scholarship for college education.
“Where does all the money go to? Somebody’s pockets are probably going to get lined,” said Greg Epperson, an electronic engineer from Winder. “Will it actually benefit the people? Sometimes money has a way of disappearing and going into the wrong direction.”
Nearly every demographic group said it supported legalizing casino gambling and sports betting — except for those who consider themselves to be “very conservative.”
Support for expanded access to gambling also fell as poll respondents aged. More than three-quarters of those between the ages of 18 and 29 said they support allowing casinos in Georgia. That number dropped to just over 50% of those age 65 and older. Enthusiasm for betting on professional sports generally followed the same trend, but with slightly less support overall.
No matter how much money voters said they made, backing for casino gambling remained high. Nearly three-quarters of those who make less than $25,000 a year said they would like to have casinos in Georgia. Almost 70% of those who said they make more than $150,000 annually said they support casinos.
“People travel and spend money outside Georgia to go to Cherokee, Murphy and Vegas,” said Connie Peacock, who works in sales and lives in Coweta County. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t benefit from taxes that might be generated from that.”
Adding casino gambling or sports betting in the state would require broad support among state legislators and voters. Two-thirds of the state House and Senate would have to approve sending an amendment to voters, and then a majority would have to approve it.
The poll of 1,025 registered voters provided insight into major issues confronting state legislators this year, including gambling, seat belts, gun control and taxes. The General Assembly began its annual lawmaking session Monday.
The poll, conducted Jan. 6 through Wednesday by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, received responses from 1,025 registered voters across Georgia. It had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
The most overwhelming response came in favor of a law that would require adults riding in back seats of cars to wear seat belts. Current Georgia law requires drivers and front-seat passengers to buckle up, along with anyone 17 and under in back seats.
About 90% supported requiring everyone in a vehicle to wear seat belts.
The strong backing reflects a growing acceptance of seat belts nationwide. Nearly 90% of vehicle occupants used seat belts in 2018, a sharp increase from 71% in 2000, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Seat belts save lives,” said Ashley Bruce, a patient care technician from Covington. “My children already wear seat belts in the front and back seats.”
Support for seat belts in the back of vehicles enjoyed broad-based support across age, income, gender and political party, the AJC’s poll showed.
“I’ve got to wear them in the front, so they should wear them in the back,” said William Roach, a 55-year-old videographer from Grayson. “I just always put a seat belt on. I don’t even think about it. I don’t even really want to, but I do.”
A substantial majority of voters — 78% — expressed support for allowing guns to be confiscated from people who are a danger to themselves or others.
This kind of proposal, called a “red flag” gun law, has been introduced in the General Assembly this session. A competing bill would do the opposite, preventing any future laws from requiring people to surrender their weapons.
Voter approval of that kind of law crossed party lines, but poll respondents who identified themselves as liberal were generally more likely to support it than those who identified themselves as conservative. About 86% of those who said they were liberal backed a “red flag” law compared with 76% of those who said they were conservative.
Al Popp, who is retired from law enforcement, said he could support that kind of law only after a judge holds a hearing to determine whether someone is dangerous. A “red flag” bill proposed in Georgia would allow state residents and police to ask a judge to determine whether someone is a threat.
“You’ve got to have a hearing. He has to be able to defend himself as to why he should be able to keep his gun,” said Popp, who lives in Greensboro.
David Tootle, who works in cybersecurity, said he worries that taking guns away is a slippery slope that potentially infringes on individual freedoms. But he said he recognizes that dangerous individuals with guns make their communities less safe.
“If somebody threatens to kill people or do harm or make terroristic threats, then you do forfeit particular rights,” said Tootle, who lives in Savannah. “Maybe that would help the situation at some point, but is it worth putting everybody through the wringer?”
As state lawmakers are considering cutting income taxes for the second time in three years, respondents to the AJC’s poll favored keeping the tax rate as it is.
A tax cut could force reductions in government services but allow Georgians to keep more of their money rather than paying it to the state.
State lawmakers reduced Georgia’s top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75% in 2018, and this year they’re considering cutting the rate further, to 5.5%. The proposal to lower income taxes comes as Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed budget cuts forced by lower-than-expected tax collections this year.
“I’m always for lowering taxes personally, but I think the social programs that are in need still need to be there,” said Vincent Mudrak, a retiree who lives in the suburbs of LaGrange. “Let’s look for ways to reduce the amount of spending on wasteful things that go on in government.”
The AJC poll showed that 50% of respondents favor keeping the current tax rate, 38% wanted the rate lowered and 9% supported raising taxes.
Ashley Heath, who works in commercial construction accounting, said lowering income taxes isn’t a priority to her.
“It’s fine where it is now,” said Heath, who lives in Jasper, about 60 miles north of Atlanta. “I believe in fair taxes. I think they need to leave it alone.”
Priorities for Georgia
The economy and jobs ranked as the top issues identified by those who participated in the AJC’s poll, but no single topic was clearly a priority. More than any broad category, more Georgians, 25%, ranked “some other issue” as their most important concern.
“There is a large homeless population. Even besides the homeless population, there are a lot of people who are underprivileged, so health care would be a major concern, especially in families with children,” said Gloria Cooper, a retiree in southwest Atlanta.
The AJC poll showed that 15% of people said the economy and jobs were their most important issue, followed by 14% who emphasized health care. Then came public education, public safety, moral issues, quality of life, transportation and taxes.
“Progress as a country has to be fundamentally built on a well-educated citizenship so we can continue to be a leader,” said Laurie Biehn of Druid Hills, who is self-employed and also prioritized the environment.
— Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.
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