The odds seem long against casino gambling, religious freedom bills

[private]With a new session only four days away, legislative leaders appear to be less than enthusiastic about two issues that dominated discussion last year: religious freedom and casino gambling.

In separate briefings with capitol reporters Thursday, top leaders in both the House and Senate tried to tamp down the idea that those controversial measures might get traction this year.

“We’ve dealt with that (religious freedom) for three years,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “I’m not going to devote a lot of energy to that this session because it’s taken too much, frankly.”

Legislators like Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) and Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) have been major proponents of bills that would allow persons not to do business with gays if they act out of a sincere religious conviction.

A religious freedom bill passed the General Assembly last year, but Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it out of concerns it would harm the state’s business image.

“I’m not sure we want to model ourselves after North Carolina and Indiana and some other states like that,” where the issue has caused major controversies, Ralston said. “I think we have to be very, very careful.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s comment on the topic was brief: “The issue around religious liberties was addressed last year. We’re in a different position today (with the election of Donald Trump as president).”

Legislation authorizing a statewide vote on casino gambling was introduced last session but never made it to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. Casino interests are spending big to try to lobby for passage of similar legislation during the new term.

Ralston said one of the biggest questions surrounding the issue of casino gambling is what to do with the tax revenues that would be raised.

“I think we’ve got a lot of decisions we have to make,” Ralston said. “I’m not sure that we’ll be able to make them all this session, and I’m still not sure that casinos in Georgia are consistent with where we want to be as a state.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) said he also was “not sure casino gambling is necessary” because of fears that casinos could cannibalize the sale of lottery tickets.Cagle2jan52017

On the senate side, in fact, there will be a push to force the board of the Georgia Lottery to transfer a larger percentage of its proceeds to the HOPE scholarship fund.

The original legislation creating the lottery specified that 35 percent of the total revenues from ticket sales would be transferred to the HOPE fund; in recent years that level has fallen below 25 percent.

Lottery officials say that higher payouts to lottery participants are necessary to maximize the sale of tickets.

“I don’t buy that,” Cowsert said. “I really don’t think they’re (ticket sales) as sensitive to that as the lottery board says.”

Cowsert said legislation will be introduced in the Senate to compel the lottery board to turn over a higher percentage of ticket proceeds to the HOPE fund.

© 2017 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: Bill Cowsert , Casey Cagle , casino gambling , David Ralston , Georgia Lottery , religious freedom