Georgia’s low-income college students deserve need-based aid

September 4, 2019 8:38 am

Georgia lawmakers are making plans to expand legal gambling beyond lotto tickets to casinos, horse racing and online sports betting. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

Georgia lawmakers should open up a new source of money to help college students from low-income families start and finish school. And limited online sports betting might be a better way to do that than today’s state-sponsored lottery and the other gambling options on the table.

Some of the old gaming standbys like casinos and horse racing are getting a new push from legislative study groups these days as lawmakers dig around for new money to cover HOPE scholarships. But online sports betting is emerging as the flavor of the week, offering a relatively smooth path to expand Georgia’s legal gambling options beyond the state-sponsored lottery. Last week – (take a breath) – the Study Committee on Gaming and Pari-mutual Wagering on Horse Racing and Growing Georgia’s Equine Industry met at the Georgia Lottery Headquarters. The presentation offered a preview of the direction senators might take next legislative session.

The potential for online sports betting provides an opportunity to realize the promise of an unfunded need-based college aid program Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law at the end of the 2018 legislative session.

Tennessee legalized online sports betting this summer following a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gives states the go-ahead to regulate sports gambling. The $50 million projected annual take for the Volunteer State, once the mobile technology is ready, is also likely enough to pay for Georgia’s unfunded need-based aid program. Meanwhile, $50 million is close to a rounding error in the context of the $1.2 billion state budget for Hope scholarships and pre-K programs.

This month, Georgia Sen. Brandon Beach’s gaming committee is set to meet again at SunTrust park to brainstorm with Atlanta sports executives who represent the Braves, Falcons and Hawks. One possibility is to limit the geography where online sports bettors can wager to the arena where a real-life game is played. Tennessee is developing mobile technology to limit gamblers to the confines of the state’s boundaries.

Beach, an Alpharetta Republican, said at last week’s study committee meeting it’s possible that newly legal sports betting is already possible under the lottery’s structure. And a simple majority of lawmakers in each chamber could be able to send a bill to the governor’s desk. That’s in contrast with the constitutional amendment votes casinos or horse racing legislation require.

If a sports bettor is limited to the footprint of Georgia’s professional sports palaces, that is an entirely different proposition than the traditional gambling development plans centered in urban areas state lawmakers entertained over the years.

Traditional worries of Georgia’s gambling opponents include neighborhood crime and the drain on the finances of low-income customers who squander their family’s money.

But the state is already in the gambling business, selling scratch-off tickets, promoting nightly drawings and pushing over-the-top marketing when jackpots reach the hundreds of millions. The lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship is a source of Georgia pride. A state higher education finance official said at last week’s meeting despite continued record revenues and an unrestricted lottery reserve of $550 million, the HOPE program is under financial strain as more qualifying students use their aid to pay ever-increasing tuition bills.

Still, the HOPE program is on solid footing by any measure. If Georgia is going to expand legalized gambling, the money should provide new educational opportunities for more Georgians. Any bounty from gaming should favor students who can’t otherwise afford tuition.

Georgia lawmakers who vote to tap into more gambling money through sports betting should make sure the payoff is a more educated workforce and more affordable education options for Georgia’s students.

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John McCosh
John McCosh

John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. For more than a decade at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCosh investigated state and local government officials and operations. He also tracked regional growth and development with a focus on metro Atlanta’s population-related problems, including traffic congestion, air pollution and water quality. He first learned the power of public records to unlock information when he was a commercial real estate reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.