Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Republicans will be asked five non-binding questions when they vote in the July primary this year. There will be the much publicized question about limiting gifts from lobbyists to legislators. Voters will also be asked if active duty military members under the age of 21 should be allowed to obtain a Georgia gun carry permit. A question designed to check opinion on whether Georgia should have “closed” primaries by making primary voters declare party affiliation 30 days prior to an election will appear. And social conservatives were successful in adding the “personhood” amendment supporting the protection of life from its “earliest biological beginning.”
Perhaps the most intriguing of the five, however, is one that asks “Should Georgia have casino gambling with funds going to education.” Intriguing because, unlike the limit on lobbyist caps or the personhood question, the matter was not being openly discussed among any significant faction of the grassroots members of the party prior to the convention.
While there has been an active plan between members of the Georgia Lottery Corporation and developer Dan O’Leary, the involvement of the Republican Party’s through the ballot question signals that there is momentum to demonstrate public support. Presumably, a positive vote count would allow elected officials to either support or “look the other way” on the approval of video casino gaming operated by the Georgia Lottery Corporation. Supporters continue to remind nervous legislators and the Governor that they need not vote to approve the expansion of the lottery’s gaming options. They only need to not stand in the way.
The Governor’s office expressed “shock” that the proposal was placed on the ballot. Spokesperson Brian Robinson told the AJC’s Jim Galloway that “the governor’s office was as surprised as anyone to hear about it.” Galloway reports that Party Chair Sue Everhart has claimed responsibility for asking the measure to be placed on the ballot, but declined to reveal who brought the idea to her.
The Governor’s position has been firm against gambling ever since it was not. In August 2010, Candidate Nathan Deal said of the issue “We should look at it with an open mind and we should not say ‘no’ just because of any particular bias one way or the other. I’m willing to keep an open mind about it.” A rebuke by social conservatives quickly had Deal evolve his position to being against the issue.
But the Governor’s official objection has not slowed the Georgia Lottery Corp nor O’Leary from pursuing the option. The Lottery Corporation commissioned a study showing the potential success of Casinos placed in either downtown Atlanta or in Suburban Atlanta such as Gwinnett County – two locations which O’Leary has potential casino sites. Meanwhile, news stories are perpetually generated showing dire projections for the HOPE Scholarship fund if additional revenues are not found.
The Governor’s most coherent criticism from Democrats has been over the reforms to the HOPE scholarship program. Continued rising costs of tuition coupled with flat lottery revenues appear to predict significant cuts in the value of the scholarship to many Georgia families. A new revenue stream to bolster the current payouts could remedy the need for additional cuts and blunt the partisan criticisms in advance of a re-election campaign. A positive result from a ballot question could deflect criticism from a Republican base that was once assured gambling was off the table.
It wouldn’t be Georgia politics if the strategy did not have it’s built in irony. As Georgia leaders appear to use a referendum on casino gambling to change public positions, they are also downplaying the message likely to be sent by Republican voters supporting a cap on lobbyist gifts.
Without the benefit of any polling on either issue, one could bet that the gift cap would be supported by more Republicans than casino gambling. A narrow show of support on casino gambling is likely to result in policy change. An overwhelming show of support for gift caps may not.
Like other issues, voters’ wishes are most likely to be heard and implemented when they coincide with the wishes of the well heeled and well connected. Casino gambling is but the latest to come to the forefront. Voters are about to be used as a convenient excuse for politicians to do what they fully intend to do. It is another opportunity to take more money from the private sector for the direct benefit on the politically powerful. Remember this when you register your opinion in July.