Ladies and gentlemen: With this post, I’m taking a few days off. Have a safe Memorial Day weekend.
The mark of a successful political convention is an absence of surprises.
By the time thousands of Republicans fled Columbus last weekend, the forces of Ron Paul had been routed with a heavy hand. Not a surprise.
Delegates to the annual state convention had rebuked the GOP-controlled Legislature for refusing to get serious about ethics reform. Important but predictable, given the anger of tea partyists.
And the Republican party’s executive committee, just before delegates jumped into their cars, had announced the five non-binding questions that will be placed before GOP voters on the July 31 primary ballot.
Topping the list: ‘Should Georgia have casino gambling with funds going to education?”
The very topic stunned the highest-perched Republicans in the land. “The casino question was a shock coming out of the convention — given the prominence of social conservatives in the party infrastructure,” said Brian Robinson, spokesman for Deal. “The governor’s office was as surprised as anyone to hear about it.”
The one exception was state GOP chairman Sue Everhart, who this week took responsibility for the decision. No monied interests had pushed for the question, she said. And the party’s most recent financial disclosure, for the month of April, shows no contributions from the gambling world. (We’ll check again later.)
Everhart said the casino question was prompted by emailed messages from two or three GOP activists who complained of the cash that was leaking away to gaming havens in Mississippi and North Carolina. “They said, if we didn’t do something before long, the Indians were going to do something – and we wouldn’t get any tax revenue out of that,” Everhart said.
And just who made these arguments? “I’m not going to throw anyone from the grassroots under the bus,” the chairman said.
To a person, members of the executive committee we spoke with said they were given no advance notice of the casino question – which lost on a first vote by the committee, and won only after it was emphasized that placing the question on the ballot didn’t constitute an endorsement.
However humble its origins might be, the simple wording of the GOP ballot question matches well with a daring, $91,000 study released last year by the Georgia Lottery Corporation, which proposed that three casinos in metro Atlanta, Savannah and Jekyll Island, equipped with 10,000 video lottery terminals, could generate nearly $1 billion a year for the state as quickly as 2014.
It’s the kind of cash that – proponents say — could return the HOPE scholarship program to its full-tuition glory.
“People don’t really comprehend what’s about to happen to the HOPE scholarship,” said Dan O’Leary, a developer who has proposed one of those casinos for Gwinnett County. And no, O’Leary said, he didn’t press Everhart to include the question on the July 31 ballot.
“I’m encouraged that somebody – whoever it is – is at least willing to explore it as an opportunity,” O’Leary said.
This week, Democrats are expected to reveal what questions – also non-binding — they’ll add to their primary ballot.
State party chairman Michael Berlon said Wednesday that Democrats will certainly mimic the Republican question that wonders whether a $100 cap should be imposed on gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers. This guarantees that ethics reform will be the No. 2 story on Aug. 1, after the transportation sales tax vote.
But Berlon also said Democrats might duplicate the GOP question on casinos as well. If they do, it would be the first time in nearly 20 years – since the approval of the state lottery in 1992 – that Georgia voters would have a chance to express their opinion on the acceptability of gaming.
Without a doubt, Republican leadership in the state Capitol is dead set against the idea of casinos opening their doors in Georgia. The governor has made his position clear. As has House Speaker David Ralston. And remember that, only six years ago, Casey Cagle was able to win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor only after Ralph Reed’s dalliance with casino forces was revealed.
So why is this happening? With the close of last weekend’s GOP convention, the bulk of Everhart’s duties as party chairman are over. She cannot run again. The casino question certainly adds a certain flair to her exit.
Also consider that, during Everhart’s six years as chairman, Republicans will have established a party structure that is distinctly separate from, and at times at odds with, the GOP forces that rule the state Capitol.
We’ll have to wait for Aug. 1, but it’s within the realm of possibility that Everhart and her grassroots activists are a nimble step or two ahead of the people they elect.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider