ATLANTA - Gambling supporters, including Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, made their first public pitch this week that casinos and horse racing are the solution to Georgia's college scholarship funding gap.
A legislative committee studying ways to shore up the merit-based HOPE scholarship program held its first meetings Monday and Tuesday in Atlanta. The group has a Dec. 1 deadline to make recommendations about increasing funding for the program, which was designed to cover all expenses using lottery funding.
But demand has outpaced lottery income, prompting Gov. Nathan Deal to back changes reducing the number of scholarship recipients in 2011. Still, nearly 95,000 students received an award in 2013. Meanwhile, tuition at many state schools has increased at higher rates than the scholarship in recent years.
Previous efforts to build casinos or allow horse-racing in Georgia all have fallen short, but the study committee is taking a close look at a proposal from Savannah Republican Ron Stephens. The chairman of the House's economic development committee introduced a constitutional amendment in the legislative session's final days, allowing a maximum of six casinos but no more than two within a region.
MGM Chairman and CEO Jim Murren said his company would be interested in a downtown resort and casino, adding that metro Atlanta could support a $1 billion project with restaurants and concerts for other entertainment options. Georgia could benefit from other states' failed and successful experiences with casinos and keep residents from spending money in surrounding states on gambling, he said.
"You don't have to be the leading edge here," Murren said. "Other states have wrestled with this issue for decades."
Stephens' proposal charges millions of dollars in upfront licensing fees plus a 12 percent tax on gross gaming revenue every year. At least 90 percent of that income would have to be spent for "educational programs and purposes," with HOPE as a first priority.
Supporters hope to get a constitutional amendment on ballots statewide in 2016, though some prominent GOP lawmakers have spoken out against any gambling expansion. Georgia Lottery Corp. President Debbie Alford on Monday also warned of "cannibalization of lottery sales" by casinos or horse-racing.
Deal said this week that the benefits of casinos don't "outweigh" the downsides.
"Money is not everything," Deal said. "Society has to sometimes deal with the consequences of how you generate it."
But the Republican governor whose final term ends in 2018 has indicated that his signature wouldn't be necessary if voters back an amendment. Under Georgia law, a bill takes effect if a governor doesn't sign or veto the proposal within 40 days after the legislature adjourns. Deal wouldn't get more specific when asked this week.
A horse-racing bill passed a Senate committee last year but didn't receive a floor vote. Dean Reeves, president of the Georgia Horseracing Coalition, said a track in metro Atlanta could add $25 million to the scholarship fund.