Why a HOPE report could relaunch the debate over casinos in Georgia

The casino floor at Harrah's Cherokee Valley River. Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

The casino floor at Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River. Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

A new and much-covered analysis released this week asserts that Georgia’s popular HOPE scholarship could run short of cash when today’s pre-K students are in college.

The report, by a pro-casino group called The Committee to Preserve HOPE Scholarships, is also just the kind of analysis casino supporters want to lay the groundwork for gambling legislation that could pump the state’s coffers with new scholarship revenue.

An army of lobbyists – about three dozen of them – was deployed this legislation session to push for a gambling expansion in Georgia, including 16 by MGM Resorts International, which had already begun scouting sites to build a $1 billion gambling resort downtown.

A constitutional amendment to allow up to four casinos – two in metro Atlanta – failed to gain traction in this year’s legislative session amid opposition from Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston.

But the defeat was just the opening skirmish. Chip Lake, who is president of the committee, said this year’s effort was “probably premature to focus on solutions” instead of HOPE funding problems.

“We realized that although people in Georgia overwhelmingly favor HOPE, few understood how it could eventually be in financial trouble,” Lake said. “Most families believed that HOPE would forever be available when their children were ready for college. Our analysis found that wasn’t true, especially for the average student.”

The Georgia Student Finance Commission, which oversees the program, is reviewing the findings and our AJC education colleagues will have a deeper story on it as well. But for political purposes, consider this report an early draft of the case that casino supporters could make next year.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, one of the most outspoken supporters of an expansion of gambling, said he’ll likely come back to the table next year with a proposal to legalize horse racing and casino betting.

“I’m about saving the HOPE scholarship, no matter how we do it. The HOPE program has been a huge, huge success. We need to keep our best and brightest here,” said Beach, who hadn’t seen the report yet. “We can’t sit back and wait for the HOPE funding gap to open further.”

Expect the proposal’s opponents to point to another analysis, this one featuring a big number: $1 billion. That’s the record sum the Georgia Lottery raised for education programs over the last fiscal year.


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