Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, addresses the media at the state Capitol about priorities for the 2020 legislative session on Jan. 9, 2020. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

Let Georgians vote on gambling, Ralston says

House Speaker David Ralston says voters should decide whether to expand gambling in Georgia, a major topic for state lawmakers during this year’s legislative session.

But in comments to news media Thursday, Ralston downplayed the prospects for an additional teacher pay raise pledged by Gov. Brian Kemp during his campaign. Kemp and lawmakers approved a $3,000 raise last year, short of the full $5,000 he had proposed.

Ralston signaled a willingness for the General Assembly to put a gambling referendum on the ballot to amend the Georgia Constitution. The state’s annual legislative session begins Monday.

“Do we trust Georgians enough to let them make the decision?” asked Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. “We’ve talked about this issue here for years. One of these days, we’re either going to have to say we’re going to quit talking, or we’re going to vote it. Whichever way it comes out, it comes out.”

Increased gambling has gained renewed interest among state lawmakers who are seeking to find ways to raise money as Kemp has sought cuts to state spending. So far, the only gambling in the state is through the Georgia Lottery.

Allowing casino gambling, horse racing or sports betting in Georgia would require a constitutional amendment. Two-thirds of both the state House and Senate would have to approve sending the amendment to voters.

“At some point, I think it is appropriate to let the people of Georgia have the final word,” Ralston said.

For teachers, Ralston said an additional pay raise might not pass this year as lawmakers are considering spending cuts.

“That was not my campaign promise to pay the schoolteachers an additional sum of money, even though it’s a laudable goal,” Ralston said. “I hope we’re able to do that. I don’t know that we’ll be able to do that this session.”

Ralston also addressed several other issues:

  • Tax cuts: After the General Assembly cut the state’s top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75% in 2018, legislators were given the option to reduce tax rates again to 5.5% this year. Ralston said he’s hopeful that the lawmakers will cut taxes further but “we can’t do everything, obviously.”
  • Film tax credits: Ralston said he opposes abolishing tax credits that have created a film industry in Georgia, but he’s willing to “tweak” the $870 million program. Audits released this week found that the credits’ benefits have been exaggerated, and some companies received credits they didn’t earn.
  • Airport takeover: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport might need state oversight, but Ralston said he doesn’t believe the state government should take it over from the city of Atlanta.
  • Medicaid plan: Funding for a limited expansion of Medicaid isn’t likely this year given the state government’s tight budget. State appropriations for the first year of the program, costing over $100 million, could come in 2021.

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