ATLANTA — a senior House Republican introduced a constitutional amendment late Wednesday to expand legalized gambling to casinos and horse racing. The state’s take from the proceeds would shore up the HOPE Scholarship and Pre-K program with an estimated $250 million yearly from a single “destination casino.”

The bill would allow the overseers of the Georgia Lottery to approve construction of up o six casinos. One major gaming company backing the legislation figures its $1 billion investment will generate 10,000 construction jobs and another 10,000 permanent jobs once it opens. “This is economic development in its purist form,” said the measure’s sponsor, House Economic Development and Tourism ChairmanRon Stephens of Savannah. He’s hopeful the site of one of those casino complexes is Hutchinson Island, Savannah’s convention area.

The legislation’s introduction is too late to be voted on this year due to General Assembly procedures even though the current session lasts until April 2. Stephens said he wanted to give time for opponents to identify flaws between now and the January start of the next session so they can be fixed and agreement can be negotiated. “Let them shoot at it,” he said.

Plenty of people are likely to, such as the same groups that have successfully stopped House and Senate bills introduced inJanuary to permit betting on horse racing. Conservative groups and churches warn that casinos spawn crime and prey on the poor. That’s one reason the horse owners and breeders have insisted their bills won’t open the door to casinos and that most racing bets are placed online nowadays.

This latest proposal aims to draw on tourists and convention goers so it supporters can argue poor Georgians won’t be exploited.They also claim the scope of their development will rehabilitate urban neighborhoods and ultimately reduce crime. Gov. Nathan Deal has been a vocal opponent of expanding legalize gambling beyond the state lottery, but Stephens notes that governors can’t veto constitutional amendments. Instead, voters get the last word because it would appear on next year’s ballot if passed by two thirds of the legislature.

Polls show strong support he said for preserving the popular scholarship.

“At some point, the increasing demands of HOPE and Pre-K and the decreasing ability of the lottery to keep up with them are going to convince voters to do this,” Stephens said.


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