Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, promised this morning to push a constitutional amendment to legalize electronic bingo to raise money for schools.
During a Capitol press conference, Baker vowed to use the bingo proceeds – which he said would reach $2 billion a year in a decade – to fund higher teacher salaries, a lengthening of the school year, after-school initiatives and a host of other school programs. The Georgia Lottery would run the game.
“This will transform education in Georgia forever, and for the better,” said Baker, who served as a House floor leader to the father of Georgia’s lottery and HOPE scholarship program, Gov. Zell Miller.
“Our promise is simple: we will make Georgia schools not just better than any schools in America, but as good as any school in the world. We will no longer sit back and watch Georgia’s kids get beat by students in other parts of the United States, or by students in Germany, Japan or Korea.”
Baker wants to increase the number of days children are in school from 180 to 200 days. Many school systems have reduced the number of days because of state budget cuts.
His plan, called the BEST initiative, also calls for hiring 2,755 new teachers each year for a decade, eliminating any waiting lists on pre-kindergarten classes, having universal kindergarten in Georgia, creating two-hour after-school programs in all schools, reinstating scholarship programs for teachers and prospective teachers, and creating a new mentoring program for teachers.
He said after a decade, Georgia would have the highest-paid teachers in the U.S. and the most teachers per student in the country.
The Bingo games would have to raise more than twice what the current lottery takes in to pay for Baker’s programs. Last year, the lottery provided $872 million for education. The new, phased in bingo-funded programs would cost $2 billion a year within a decade.
“We believe the dollars are going to be there, that’s not an issue,” he said. “We believe the numbers we are proposing are conservative numbers.”
Polls show Baker trailing former Gov. Roy Barnes in the Democratic race for governor. Other leading candidates include former state Adjutant General David Poythress and state House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin).
Barnes responded, “If the idea has merit and public support and the funds will be dedicated to public education, the State should consider it.”
Poythress said creating electronic bingo for education is a bad idea.
“Everybody is concerned about funding education, but the education challenges we face are more than just funding,” he said. “As a revenue source, gambling is problematic at best. It seems to me the last thing we ought to be talking about right now is creating a government bureaucracy to regulate another legalized gambling operation.
“I don’t see anything good about this idea.”
Porter said Baker’s Bingo would compete with other, non-profit groups who use bingo for fundraising.
” My plan of going after the cheaters who don’t send in the state’s portion of sales taxes would be a more sustainable and reliable source for funding education,” Porter said.
Electronic bingo is a hot topic in neighboring Alabama. Gov. Bob Riley has been fighting to shut down electronic bingo casinos.