While we’ve been distracted these last several weeks by the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl and the daily reality show “Celebrity Presidential Apprentice” unfolding in Washington, the Georgia legislature has been humming along in the background like your refrigerator.
The first portion of the session is when bills are introduced and begin to wind their way through committee in search of support. Most eventually will find their way into the same scrap heap as those Super Bowl Champion T-shirts we all hoped to be wearing this week.
Thus, it’s a good time to catch up on a few issues that may make it to the governor’s desk before the 40-day clock runs out:
• Casino gambling. The proposal before the Senate would create a limited number of “destination resorts” statewide in metro areas that would include gambling, but with stipulations to keep from turning Georgia into Nevada South.
The current bill would require resorts to earn more than 60 percent of their revenue from entertainment sources other than gambling, the goal being to create full-service destinations with more than blackjack tables as attractions.
The plan, sponsored by Alpharetta Republican Sen. Brandon Beach, would funnel 20 percent of the taxes earned on gambling revenue toward grants to help struggling rural hospitals and 50 percent toward college scholarships, both critical needs that need funding. The bill, if approved, would put the issue before voters as a constitutional amendment.
Despite the economic pluses, legalized gambling raises a few red flags. One is the crime that can follow such enterprises, and costs connected with increased law enforcement and regulating casinos through a statewide gaming commission. Another is the concern gaming tables could take away revenue for the Georgia Lottery, which fuels the HOPE Scholarship that has provided 1.75 million state students a chance to attend college without a lifetime of debt to pay off.
Some also argue casinos would merely redirect visitors from the state’s other attractions, making revenue gains less than expected.
And there is the worry that easy access to gaming tables could lead to gambling addictions for those who fall victim to the allure of an easy fortune.
The religious community is against the bill, with a group of Baptist preachers attending Thursday’s Senate hearing to express opposition. They deserve to be heard, but history shows attempts to prohibit popular vices seldom win on a wide scale in the long haul. Their best hope may be that if gambling is allowed, it will be limited and regulated heavily.
Legislators and Georgia voters may be open to the idea, however, as is Gov. Nathan Deal. If the downsides can be addressed, the revenue could provide needed benefits and lure more visitors to our state.
Still, it’s worth pausing to weigh the pros and cons before deciding. If a bill passes, voters should give it a full review before deciding at the polls.
• Guns on campus. This idea vetoed by Deal last year is back for another round, as expected. This version of the bill would exempt student housing and sports stadiums, yet still allow students who are registered to carry weapons to do so in other areas of college campuses.
Even with changes, it doesn’t address the concern of introducing weapons to a youthful culture mixed with parties and alcohol. For every campus attack that might be thwarted by an armed victim, there could be multiple cases of accidental shootings or incidents of instant rage that lead to tragedy. Arming students would make the jobs of campus police that much harder when they respond to a dangerous situation.
College and university leaders don’t want this, their objection likely a key factor in the governor’s denial last year. We, and he, should continue to bow to their views on what works best on their campuses.
• Online sales taxes. A House bill to collect sales taxes on online purchases has cleared committee and has bipartisan support. Georgia is among a dozen states proposing to add that levy to stuff bought on retail websites.
No one likes paying more taxes, but this is an issue of fairness more than revenue. Though it could add some $274 million to the state’s coffers, the real goal is to create a level playing field between online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores who must charge sales taxes to customers. They’re already struggling in a landscape that allows us to buy boots, backpacks or barbecue sauce with the click of a mouse and have them delivered in a day or so. Charging the same sales tax for all purchases would give them more of a fighting chance to compete.
• Medical marijuana. A Senate panel is moving along a plan to expand the number of diseases and conditions that would qualify for legal use of cannabis oil. It also would ease requirements on physicians and residency restrictions.
The bill is a good step forward after plans to expand access to the drug failed to pass last year. Families who rely on cannabis oil to treat children suffering from seizure-causing afflictions still face obstacles in acquiring the drug from out-of-state sources.
Among the diagnoses that would be cleared for treatment are post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS, HIV, chronic pain and autism. The PTSD waiver would be of special benefit to veterans who battle trauma suffered while serving their country, and are deserving of this option.
Parents whose children receive this treatment swear by its benefits. In the best of situations, it’s an expensive way to ease the symptoms of diseases that have no cure. Any effort to remove obstacles to such suffering is worth supporting.
All these issues are worth following closely as bills begin working their way toward possible passage. While other matters may command Georgians’ attention, what comes out of the Capitol each year has a direct effect on our lives and shouldn’t escape notice, even as what is unfolding under the ever-present “breaking news” banner on cable news channels commands more attention.
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