Abrams bets that support for casino gambling will pay off in November

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

When Stacey Abrams backed a proposal to legalize casino gambling in Georgia, she endorsed a contentious idea few top state politicians from either party have embraced in the decades since the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship was approved.

To win over skeptical legislators, then-Gov. Zell Miller, the Democratic godfather of the popular scholarship, made clear that the legislation would bar casinos and sports betting. And candidates for top offices steered clear of endorsing broader gambling expansions after the law took effect 30 years ago.

Abrams stopped short of supporting a wholesale expansion of gambling in both the Legislature and during her 2018 bid for governor, saying instead that she’d dip deeper into lottery reserves and find other revenue to bolster the popular scholarship.

But the Democrat ventured into new political territory Tuesday when she vowed to legalize casino gambling and sports betting if elected governor to allow students with “C” averages to tap into the program and finance a needs-based college scholarship.

“We are at a generational moment,” Abrams said in an interview. “The cost of education is extraordinarily high, and too many of our students are falling further behind. And they have no real support from the state.”

Her endorsement for legalizing gambling brings to the forefront a debate that’s waged every year in the state Capitol over legislation that’s perennially failed to pass despite a growing number of rank-and-file supporters from both parties and a host of lobbyists.

It also sharpens a contrast with her opponent, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who has said he opposes legalizing casino gambling but that he wouldn’t take action to stop legislators from seeking a constitutional amendment that voters would have to approve.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“It’s going to take a constitutional amendment. It doesn’t really matter what the governor thinks. You can’t veto a constitutional amendment,” Kemp said. “What we have done is focus on creating greater economic opportunity regardless of whether we have a casino or not.”

Kemp spokesman Tate Mitchell said the governor plans to work with legislative leaders on a measure to allow sports betting in 2023 if he’s reelected. The governor opposed legalizing sports betting in 2018 but steered clear of the debate this year.

Tough bet

Expanding casino gambling in Georgia has been a tough bet for supporters because it requires amending the state constitution — allowed only once two-thirds of each legislative chamber agrees to place it on a statewide ballot and a majority of voters approve the change.

Still, proponents have been buoyed by promises from casino magnates of multibillion-dollar investments.

The Georgia Senate passed legislation last year to ask voters whether to legalize online sports betting, but the House never adopted the final legislation that would have opened the door to several forms of gambling.

The public’s sentiment about the idea has steadily changed. A watershed moment occurred in 2012 when a majority of Georgia Republicans indicated in a nonbinding ballot question that they supported casino gambling.

And a 2020 poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that about 58% of Georgia voters support legalizing sports betting.

“Any time there’s economic instability, new ways to generate more revenue usually generate more support,” said Rick Dent, a veteran political strategist who served as Miller’s press secretary after the lottery passed. “Gambling is already all around Georgia. So why shouldn’t the state get a piece of that?”

Miller’s lottery idea was once seen as unthinkable in the Deep South but is now a much-copied higher education plan that’s boosted the state’s network of colleges and universities.

“Critics thought endorsing the lottery would end Zell Miller’s career,” Dent said. “And once it got passed, any talk of expansion was almost immediately cut off because there were worries it would hurt the lottery.”

‘Thrilled’

The contours of Abrams’ plan are still being hashed out, but she said in an interview that she would support a cap of three casinos in Georgia spaced out geographically to reduce competition. The revenue should “primarily” fund needs-based aid and make technical college tuition-free, she said.

Her plan also calls for the lottery to transfer $300 million of its $1.6 billion in reserve funds to a needs-based aid trust fund. She would tax sports betting at 20% — the same rate Republican-led Tennessee uses — while also instituting licensing fees. Other key details, she said, would be left to lawmakers.

“We need to start with the intention of providing need-based aid and return to a bipartisan conversation about what this will look like,” she said. “I don’t want to set hard-and-fast rules because I know the legislative process well.”

Because of the two-thirds threshold to pass a constitutional amendment, legalizing gambling requires broad bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

With a bloc of conservative legislators unwilling to embrace the idea because of moral concerns, Republicans who support gambling have unsuccessfully tried to woo Democrats with promises of incentives to help needier Georgians.

Anti-gambling advocates say Abrams’ position is a nonstarter. State Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, who is retiring from the General Assembly this year, said “casinos would negatively affect our state in almost every way, especially economically,” by hurting nearby businesses and spurring more crime and addiction.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

“We have already seen repeatedly, when it comes to legalizing social moral vices, that the theoretical benefits — economic and otherwise — do not match the devastating negative impact,” said Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

For Abrams, who trails Kemp in polls, the call to legalize gambling is part of an overall revamp of her economic message. She also has vowed to pass pay raises for teachers and law enforcement officials, expand Medicaid and establish new legal protections for abortion rights.

“This is a way for Stacey Abrams to draw an even bigger contrast with Kemp,” Dent said. “She can say: ‘If you elect me, you’ll get casino gambling, Medicaid expansion and abortion rights. If you elect Kemp, you won’t get any of that.’”

Abrams’ position also offers the sometimes-fractious Democrats a chance to unify on the issue. State Rep. Stacey Evans, who endorsed casino gambling in 2018 in a losing primary bid against Abrams, said it will be a “game changer” for education financing.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

“Education changes everything,” Evans said. “I believe that to my core.”

House Minority Leader James Beverly, who hasn’t previously endorsed the idea, said he’s had private discussions with other party leaders about a path forward since attending a recent conference in Boston focused on gambling. He said he will back allowing Georgians to vote on the initiative.

“We need to get it right the first time,” Beverly said. “Abrams’ proposal falls in line with what we are now discussing in our caucus. If we have a holistic conversation, and Georgians vote for it, we will move forward.”