Ralston: Georgia voters could be asked to decide gambling expansion

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston speaks to the media about his priorities for the 2022 session of the General Assembly during a media briefing on Thursday. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston speaks to the media about his priorities for the 2022 session of the General Assembly during a media briefing on Thursday. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

House Speaker David Ralston says Georgia lawmakers might put gambling on the ballot this year.

“There is an appetite this session that I haven’t seen before to do something,” Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said during a media briefing Thursday. “Maybe it’s time that we asked the question of Georgians whether they want to expand gaming, and if they say yes, then we sit down and decide what form it will take, whether it’s going to be sports betting, whether you do horses or destination resorts.”

“Destination resort” is the General Assembly’s euphemism for casino.

Ralston’s comments elevate the prospect that Georgia could expand gambling beyond the lottery during the state’s annual legislative session that begins Monday. Lawmakers debate bills to add betting options every year, but they haven’t advanced.

Under Ralston’s proposal, a referendum would ask voters whether they want to increase gambling in Georgia, without defining what kinds of betting would be allowed. The General Assembly could then decide how to move forward.

Gov. Brian Kemp has long opposed legalized gambling, though he noted that if two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of Georgia voters support the idea, it will pass regardless of his stance.

”It doesn’t matter what I think if they pass a constitutional amendment,” Kemp said.

Besides gambling, Ralston said he wants legislators to focus on his priorities of mental health and public safety rather than get caught up in what he called “silly bills” pitched in an election year. At least 12 lawmakers are running for higher office in 2022, and candidates in the Legislature often promote bills to please their partisan bases and increase their election chances.

Ralston also said he’s undecided on whether to support a proposal to create a new city of Buckhead from the northern part of Atlanta, and he said legislators shouldn’t pass new anti-abortion bills until the U.S. Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of Mississippi’s ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Georgia’s so-called “heartbeat” law is more restrictive than Mississippi’s, outlawing most abortions when a doctor can detect cardiac activity, usually about six weeks into pregnancy and before many women know they’re pregnant.

The 2022 legislative session will get off to an accelerated start on Monday. Ralston plans to gavel in the state House at 8:30 a.m., earlier than its normal 10 a.m. session, then quickly adjourn so he and other lawmakers can travel to Indianapolis for the college football national championship game between the University of Georgia and Alabama.

“I look forward to helping bring back on Tuesday the national college football trophy to Georgia,” Ralston said.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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