Abrams: It’s time to legalize casino gambling and sports betting

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Stacey Abrams backed a plan to legalize casino gambling and sports betting to expand the HOPE scholarship and finance a needs-based program as part of a revamped economic platform she hopes will boost her chances to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

The Democrat said Tuesday that the new tax dollars generated by legalized gambling would be a “permanent source of revenue to underwrite broader access to education,” including extending the scholarship to students with a “C” average and above.

“Studies project that the potential for billions exists in economic impact, funds that will not only finance our efforts to replenish and expand the HOPE scholarship but it will also provide new economic opportunities for Georgia that can grow jobs and make our economy stronger for everyone,” she said.

Since the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship was authorized in the early 1990s, governors from both parties have opposed a full-scale expansion of gambling to allow casinos or sports betting despite a perennial push by some rank-and-file lawmakers who pitch it as a new way to raise revenue.

An expansion of gambling requires a constitutional amendment that would need to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of Georgia voters in a referendum. Abrams pushed the idea, along with her call to dip deeper into a bulging state surplus, as a can’t-miss chance to finance long-sought priorities.

“Hear me clearly, we don’t have to raise taxes,” Abrams said of her agenda. “All we have to do is raise our expectations of those who lead us.”

Trailing in the polls, Abrams wants to reframe her campaign’s fiscal agenda at time when Kemp consistently links the Democrat to a shaky economy that midterm voters say is their primary concern.

She’s also stepped up her embrace of President Joe Biden despite his low approval rating, confident that the likely passage of key parts of his economic agenda will energize voters.

Her speech, a high-gloss event at a downtown Atlanta brewery, exemplified her attempt to weave economic concerns with two other threads she hopes will prove decisive in the election: Angst over anti-abortion limits and pro-gun expansions that she’s betting will motivate Georgians to rush to voting sites.

She also promised to deliver free technical college for Georgians, create a $10 million small business growth fund and emphasized her a plan to use surplus funds to finance a $1 billion tax refund. And she said she would take aggressive steps to bring more economic equity by financing more apprenticeships.

Throughout her address, Abrams said Kemp-backed “extreme and unpopular” policies are exacting untold damage on the state’s business reputation and already costing Georgia economic development opportunities.

She has frequently invoked Music Midtown’s decision to cancel the annual music festival as an example, along with attempts by Democratic governors to woo businesses concerned with the state’s newly enacted restrictions on abortion.

“He is no anti-Trump moderate and no fiscal conservative,” she said of the Republican, adding: “When the choice is between what’s best for Brian Kemp’s future and what’s best for Georgia, Brian Kemp will always choose himself.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

And she challenged Georgians to take a long-term view of the surge of revenue at the state’s disposal amid soaring tax collections and a federal infusion of cash during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This fall we face a generational moment,” she said of the state’s more than $5 billion surplus. “We have a windfall. But the question is what we will do with it?”

‘Stay focused’

The address signaled a new sense of urgency from Abrams to sharpen her message as she struggles to overtake Kemp in the polls. Even Abrams’ internal data shows her lagging the incumbent, and she’s frequently acknowledged she’s the underdog despite an enormous fundraising edge.

Kemp has shrugged off many of his rival’s broadsides as he paints her policies as pie-in-the-sky ideas that would force her to call for new tax hikes. And he’s underlined his financial record, starting with his decision to reopen parts of Georgia’s economy amid intense criticism during the first weeks of the pandemic.

“Tonight was an hour of hot air and empty words from a desperate candidate who can’t get poll results back quick enough to tell her what government program to promise to voters next,” said Kemp spokesman Tate Mitchell.

On Wednesday, the governor is set to announce what officials say is a record-breaking year for economic development, fueled by decisions by Rivian and Hyundai to establish new auto plants in rural parts of the state that will employ thousands of state workers.

Some 85% of the investments and more than 30,000 new jobs were generated outside the metro Atlanta region, Kemp’s aides say.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

And in a reflection of Kemp’s confidence, he hasn’t rushed to counter her proposals with new initiatives of his own – or even responded to many of her scathing attacks. Instead, he’s leveraging the power of incumbency to command attention.

Only this week did Kemp’s campaign indicate it would roll out key economic development initiatives for a second term. He plans to unveil a $1 billion tax rebate financed by Georgia’s record surplus, along with a separate rebate for homeowners.

“Georgians are going to stay focused on what they care about,” Kemp told supporters at a campaign stop in northeast Georgia. “And what Georgia families and working Georgians need right now is for us to fight the 40-year high inflation.”