By Elaine Owen, Editor
Georgia’s annual legislative session began Monday (Jan. 13).
Speaking to news media last Thursday (Jan. 9) 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.
Ralston signaled a willingness for the General Assembly to put a gambling referendum on the ballot to amend the Georgia Constitution.
“Do we trust Georgians enough to let them make the decision?” asked Ralston (R-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, sports better or horse racing 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.
In April 2019, Gov. Brian Kemp signaled he will not stand in the way of a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to allow casinos in Georgia. At that time, Kemp’s spokesman said that while the governor remains opposed to casino gambling, “hardworking Georgians will have the ultimate say if a constitutional amendment is placed on the ballot.” Kemp, who campaigned against the expansion of gambling, will insist that the new funds be used for the popular lottery-funded HOPE scholarship if a constitutional amendment passes.
Ralston minimized the prospects for an additional pay raise for teachers proposed 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 suggested.
He said, “It was not my campaign promise to pay the schoolteachers an additional sum of money, even though it’s a laudable goal. I hope we’re able to do that- -but I don’t know that we’ll be able to do that this session.”
Kemp and lawmakers approved a $3,000 raise last year, short of the full $5,000 he had suggested.
The Speaker addressed other issues: TAX CUTS: After the General Assembly cut income tax rates 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.
EXPANDED MEDICAID: 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.