ATLANTA - Supporters of casino gambling hope to legalize the industry in Georgia after several failed attempts in recent legislative sessions.
Backers argue that casino gambling is the solution to high demand for Georgia's merit-based college scholarship program, known as HOPE. Georgia's lottery has struggled to keep up with demand for those awards, which are used to cover expenses to attend the state's public colleges.
Legislators plan to introduce two identical bills. Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, is sponsoring the House version, which would allow two "resort destinations" that could offer casino gambling.
Stephens says the state would tax 20 percent of gambling revenue, funneling it through a new commission overseeing gambling to the state Lottery. He said 30 percent of that pool will create a new needs-based college scholarship and the rest would be used for the HOPE scholarship, other college grants and the state's pre-kindergarten program.
The bills are expected to be introduced in both the House and Senate this week, but their specific wording wasn't immediately available. Supporters plan to later introduce a constitutional amendment, eliminating a prohibition on casinos.
Influential faith-based groups are among the chief opponents of any gambling expansion and some top lawmakers haven't embraced casino supporters' past efforts. Undaunted, various gambling companies have again hired dozens of lobbyists in Georgia this year.
The outline Stephens discussed on Tuesday is a scaled-down version of previous proposals that would have allowed up to six casinos statewide. The new measure also would increase taxes on casino gambling to 20 percent, up from 12 percent.
"I think we've got a very, very good chance of getting this thing through," Stephens said.
Rep. Stacey Evans of Smyrna said needs-based aid is a top priority for her and other Democrats. House Republicans don't hold the two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional amendments, making the minority party's backing essential.
"We know students from high-income households are already going to college at a good clip, and we're only going to grow our higher-education population by pulling from low-income students," who need financial help, Evans said. "It's all part of a bigger puzzle to keep Georgia's economy strong and get the type of jobs we want to attract."
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who was a vocal opponent of casinos last year, said on Tuesday that he's willing to "keep the discussion going." He noted that a proposed constitutional amendment doesn't require a governor's signature to get a statewide vote.
But Deal's signature would be required for the legislation laying out the mechanics of casino licensing, taxes and other details. Deal said he's most concerned about any effect casinos may have on the state's lottery program, which in addition to the HOPE program, also supports other college grants and scholarships.
"We need to be absolutely certain that if a casino bill passes that it does not adversely impact the lottery program of the state," Deal said.