Georgians back gambling, medical marijuana as General Assembly begins

Staff writers Nancy Badertscher, Laura Diaz and James Salzer contributed to this article.

Georgia voters want lawmakers to legalize casino gambling, expand access to medical marijuana and pass a “religious liberty” bill when they return to Atlanta for the 2016 legislative session, an exclusive new poll from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Those three topics are expected to be among the most hotly debated over the 40-day session that begins at 10 a.m. Monday. The poll, conducted last week by the national firm Abt SRBI, found:

  • Sixty-two percent of registered voters favor legalization of casino gambling in Georgia to support the HOPE scholarship.
  • Seventy-two percent believe the state should create a medical marijuana harvest and distribution system.
  • Just barely half — 53 percent —believe lawmakers should pass Senate Bill 129, the so-called religious liberty bill.
  • Only 39 percent support "merit pay" for teachers, which would tie educators' pay and raises to student performance.

Results also showed an even 50 percent of voters gave Gov. Nathan Deal favorable marks, up 3 points from a year ago. And 44 percent approved of the way the Georgia Legislature was doing its job.

Supporters of bills backing casinos, medical marijuana and religious liberty celebrated the results.

Casino gambling

“We are watching hundreds of millions of dollars a year drive across state lines because Georgians are gambling, but they’re doing it in other states,” said Chip Lake, a member of the Committee to Preserve HOPE Scholarships. “We need those tax dollars here to benefit the HOPE scholarship.”

The bill’s backers have pledged to direct casino taxes to the popular HOPE programs, including college scholarships and pre-k programs, which are now funded by the Georgia Lottery.

Gayle Samuelson, 74, of Auburn said gambling is wrong, but that hasn’t stopped it.

“People are going to gamble even though it’s against God’s law and man’s law,” said Samuelson, who is retired. “So, let’s get every dime out of it.”

Samuelson said she’s even been known to buy a lottery ticket now and again and she’s been to casinos in Mississippi.

The results did not surprise state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who has sponsored horse-racing legislation to legalize betting across the state.

“I hear over and over from families in my district about the rising costs of tuition and fees to send their children to college,” said Beach, the co-chairman for joint House and Senate committees that have looked into whether to expand gambling in Georgia. The committees, which finished their work in December, have yet to formally release recommendations.

Beach, however, said that while he and other boosters tout the potential economic development benefits of the proposal, a bigger issue may well be its intended beneficiaries: the state’s premier education programs.

The HOPE scholarship and pre-k programs struggle financially to keep up with the demand despite record profits from the state lottery that funds them. Despite efforts to raise more money for them — which the gambling expansion, in part, is intended to do — it will never be enough to keep up with increasing student enrollment and rising college tuition and other costs.

“The HOPE scholarship has helped families from a financial standpoint, it has helped us to keep our best and brightest in Georgia and it has elevated the status of our universities,” Beach said. “Saving the HOPE scholarship is vital to keeping Georgia positioned as the No. 1 state in the country to do business.”

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, has sponsored House Resolution 807, which would ask voters whether the state constitution should be amended to allow up to six casinos. It will take a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to put the question on the November ballot.

Stephens, the chairman of the House Economic Development Committee, called the AJC poll “very good news.”

“It is pretty much in line with what we have been hearing,” Stephens said. “I think the numbers will be even better once it’s couched as a way to provide full funding for the HOPE scholarship.”

But Mike Griffin, the public affairs director for the Georgia Baptist Convention, said his organization will not be “moved by those polls at all.”

Republican lawmakers, he said, already could face voters hostile to last year’s transportation bill that featured gasoline tax increases and the failure thus far to pass religious liberty legislation.

“The last thing some of these legislators want to have to do is say they supported an industry like casinos,” Griffin said. “It’s important our legislators not succumb to the greed and passion of this type of industry.”

Medical marijuana

On medical marijuana, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, has already filed House Bill 722, which would create up to six facilities in Georgia where marijuana would be grown, harvested and processed into cannabis oil. The oil would be used by those who suffer from more than a dozen diseases — an expanded list from what's currently allowed now.

Lawmakers passed Georgia’s landmark legislation last year allowing Georgians to use a limited form of cannabis oil to treat severe forms of eight illnesses including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

More than 465 families are now enrolled in the program, which went live in June when a new state registry began signing up patients. But while state law now makes it legal for those patients to have and use the drug, they must travel to other states to get it, which makes them vulnerable to criminal charges of drug possession in other states.

“There’s no denying citizens want this,” Peake said of the poll results, adding “I’m not surprised at all. It is clear that citizens want a safe, lab-tested, efficient way to access medical cannabis in Georgia.”

Jacqueline Guffie, a 55-year-old grandmother, opposes casinos but supports expansion of the medical marijuana program.

“People who suffer from seizures and other illnesses need it,” she said.

Despite the strong numbers from the poll, both measures face uncertain futures. Both law enforcement officials and the governor have expressed concerns about contradicting federal law if Georgia were to allow cultivation of medical marijuana in-state. And Deal has also opposed expanding gambling.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, strongly supports Peake's medical cannabis bill but has not taken a position on casinos.

“I don’t know that we know the answer yet to whether 2016 is the year” for casinos, Ralston told the AJC in a recent interview.

“I don’t want a model that allows casinos to spring up like box stores all over the state,” Ralston said. “The discussion about whether we amend the constitution needs to be made hand in hand with what our goal ought to be in terms of the number of facilities and the sort of investment that we would require.”

Religious liberty

While the poll found overwhelming support for casinos and medical marijuana, the majority support for religious liberty is more nuanced.

The poll first told respondents the bill “will prevent state and local governments from interfering with an individual’s right to practice their religion. Supporters say the bill would protect people of any religion from government interference. Opponents worry it could lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians.”

Asked whether lawmakers should pass it, 53 percent of all respondents said “yes,” including 65 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats.

Those who said yes, and those who said they didn’t know, were then asked: “What if the bill allowed businesses here in Georgia to refuse service or refuse to offer a job to gays or lesbians based on the business owner’s religious beliefs?”

Forty-one percent said the bill should still move forward while 53 percent said it should not.

By combining the results from both questions, the poll found that only 27 percent of Georgia voters would support the bill if it allowed discrimination.

Joy Bankston, 59, a retired teacher from McDonough, said the bill would protect business owners.

“I think a person’s business should be private,” she said. “They have the right to make the decision over anything. Whether or not I agree with that decision is beside the point. If it’s public, then the shareholders can be the ones who make that decision.”

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, is the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 129, which passed the Senate last year and is lodged in a House committee. McKoon's backers voted to table the bill late in the 2015 session after moderate Republicans joined Democrats to add anti-discrimination language that McKoon said "gutted" the bill.

McKoon was thrilled with the poll results.

“Look, I think it’s amazing given what I estimate to be hundreds of thousands of dollars spent trying to tell the public this is some terrible, awful thing,” McKoon said, referring to opposition from the state’s corporate leaders who worry the bill will hurt the state’s image.

“I see it as a tremendous affirmation of what we’re doing,” said McKoon, who has said repeatedly that he has no anti-gay agenda. He said it was nonsensical to ask the bill’s supporters about allowing businesses to refuse service, calling it a “false premise” because that was not the intent of his bill, he said.

But Lurma Rackley of Peachtree City isn’t buying it.

“I think it is a ruse to allow discrimination against the LGBT population,” said Rackley, a writer for a nonprofit organization. “I think we have enough laws to protect religious freedoms. I just don’t think giving people the right to discriminate against somebody is right.”

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