A late push to revive a measure that would legalize gambling in Georgia hit a brick wall Friday after sponsors failed to gain enough traction to get it past a committee vote.
State Rep. Ron Stephens scuttled plans to present his casino measure, House Bill 158, after a compromise plan fell apart. House Speaker David Ralston strongly suggested the measure won't reach a vote this year.
"We’re going to take a deep breath and come back and look at it some over the interim," he said, adding: "We want to keep the discussion going but we thought today was probably not the appropriate time to do that."
Pressed on whether that meant the measure was scuttled until 2018, he said: "I think that’s going to be tough. I wouldn’t bet on it. That’s been my line."
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat working behind the scenes to hash out a deal, was unequivocal.
“The plug was pulled. We just couldn’t come to grips with it,” said Smyre, who said his attention was on a 2018 fight for the measure. “I was hoping to come to some kind of agreement today, but we fell short.”
The surprise attempt to revive the bill came after the other chief sponsor of the measure, state Sen. Brandon Beach, said he will no longer push for his measure this year because he didn’t have the votes to get Senate Bill 79 out of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.
“I am not discouraged,” Beach told our AJC colleague Aaron Gould Sheinin. “I will double down and plan to crisscross the state starting in April” to build support for the bill in 2018.
The committee hearing was initially set for Crossover Day, the last day legislation can pass from one chamber to another and still have a clear path to become law this year. Early in the day, Stephens was confident he could wrangle up enough votes to get it approved.
“I want us to have a vote,” said Stephens. “Either you’re for this or you’re against it. You can’t be for HOPE scholarships and opposed to gambling. They are inextricably linked.”
He's referring to the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, which pays the in-state college tuition for students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average. The lottery also funds pre-K programs.
It triggered a flood of opposition from religious conservatives and other critics of the measure, which would allow two "destination resort” casinos with proceeds from a 20 percent tax going to a host of interests, from HOPE scholarships, to needs-based college grants, rural trauma care and rural hospitals, to broadband Internet infrastructure to law enforcement raises.
Opponents quickly scheduled a 1press conference to urge lawmakers to oppose the gambling legislation, as many legislative supporters and some of the 40 or so lobbyists representing the gambling industry scurried around the statehouse trying to whip votes.
State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, called the last-minute hearing a "gross abuse" of the legislative process.
"We will continue to fight this no matter what happens," he told our AJC colleague Michelle Baruchman. "But the people of Georgia deserve a better process than what they are being given by House leadership today."