Dave Garrett is a man in search of a wink. If he must, he will settle for a discreet nod.
Two weeks ago, the Atlanta real estate developer launched a campaign to persuade the Georgia Lottery Corporation to embrace video lottery terminals across the state and restore the HOPE scholarship program to its former, 3.0 grade-point glory.
The video terminals would supplement the scratch-off business now done in convenience stores and elsewhere. Strong evidence indicates that electronic delivery results in increased sales.
Critics are sure to condemn Garrett’s idea as an expansion of gambling. The word “casino” is, in fact, his worst enemy. But the developer and his friends point to the other side of the coin — the contraction of the HOPE scholarship and pre-k programs.
Facing flat lottery revenues and increased demand, Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly this year approved unprecedented cuts to HOPE and pre-k.
Money for books was eliminated. Full tuition will be covered only for outstanding high school students with a 3.7 grade-point average. For most students, HOPE proceeds are likely to cover less than 80 percent of the next school year’s tuition.
Technology is leaving the lottery behind, Garrett said over lunch this week.
“It’s like anything else. You can change or resolve yourself to what I think will be a slow spiral,” Garrett said. “ But if you believe in the program, you’ve got to believe that something’s got to be done.”
Garrett understands how Georgia and its lottery work. He headed up the campaign to pass it. Gov. Zell Miller, who introduced the lottery in his 1990 campaign, named Garrett as the first chairman of lottery corporation’s board.
Sonny Perdue, the state’s first Republican governor, appointed Garrett to the board again after his 2002 election. Garrett saw the difference between Democratic and Republican governors.
Miller and Roy Barnes kept their hands off policy decisions, Garrett said. The mandate was fresh, and all parties generally agreed on what needed to be done.
Perdue — whose GOP constituency included a conservative Christian base — insisted on a more direct voice. As evidenced by the governor’s appointment of his former chief of staff, John Watson, to the lottery board in 2008.
Garrett thinks the lottery board can approve a shift to video lottery terminals on its own. But the current board chairman, Jimmy Braswell, says he and his fellows will require some sort of signal from the state Capitol before they consider the proposal.
Which leads us to Garrett’s search for a wink or a nod.
“There’s got to be some middle ground — where the governor is not expanding gambling, but he’s keeping a program alive,” Garrett said.
No doors have been slammed in his face, or that of his group, HOPE 20/20. But Garrett hasn’t stepped on any welcome mats, either.
“While the lieutenant governor has concerns about expanding gambling in Georgia and has yet to be convinced that this is the appropriate way forward, he would not stand in the way of the [lottery board] gathering information and making a case,” said Ben Fry, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
House Speaker David Ralston noted that there is “a clear difference” between casino gambling and video lottery terminals. But Ralston also declared he wouldn’t be pushed by an outsider. “The go-it-alone approach currently being exercised by some will not accomplish anyone’s goals,” the speaker said. “This is an area where cooperation and collaboration are needed.”
The governor remains the most important figure from whom Garrett requires a green light. So far, the hints haven’t been encouraging.
Last month, Deal vetoed SB 19, a measure that would have permitted the operators of some “amusement machines” to issue gift certificates — not cash — to game winners. The governor declared that the bill’s language could have led to “unintended consequences.” Gambling, in other words.
More important is an overlooked paragraph in a speech Deal gave to the state GOP convention in Macon last month — phrasing that was overshadowed by boos from a crowd upset at the governor’s decision to back his own candidate for state chairman.
The governor applauded the changes made to the HOPE scholarship by the Legislature. “That is the Republican principle in action of breaking an entitlement mentality,” Deal said.
The word “entitlement” is the clue — a pejorative in the current political lexicon that conjures up images of sloth and grasping hands. It is not a word that Miller used in the 1990s, when his blue-collar message was that good students deserved as much help as great ones.
But if the old HOPE scholarship can be dismissed as an entitlement, then slowly shrinking lottery funds — given to fewer and fewer students, but on a more competitive basis — are less likely to be a concern at the state Capitol.
If HOPE is a mere “entitlement,” then moving Georgia’s lottery past paper scratch-off tickets becomes a fight that doesn’t need to happen. And Garrett will be waiting a long, long time for that wink.
You have to wonder what Zell Miller thinks about this.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider