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State should take gamble to reinvigorate economy

Bill Shipp

Following is a proposed speech for Ralph Reed's political campaign. The odds in Las Vegas are running about 10,000 to 1 against his delivering it.

My fellow Georgians, let me introduce myself. I am Ralph Reed, and I want to be your lieutenant governor.

You may have heard of me. I used to run Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. I coordinated President Bush's 2004 campaign in the South. Lately, my enemies have tried to connect me to sleazy lobbyists and underhanded congressmen. My opponents will do anything to keep me from being elected.

Let me give you more accurate information, some of which may startle you. Among other things, I am an authority on gambling. Yep, you heard that right. A nice boy like me, a born-again Christian, a guy with a magic campaign touch, a fellow who in a flash can churn out a sermon on the Ten Commandments. I - "little Ralphie" Reed - am an expert on the politics of casinos and lotteries. I know how they work and how much money they can generate.

How I became a gambling expert is already well known inside the Beltway. The Washington press corps has described in detail my lobbying activities both to benefit and to damage gaming operations in Texas and Alabama.

Forget about that part of my history for a moment. Let me tell you something about our state and the present that you may not like to hear.

Parts of rural Georgia are drying up. They have no industry and no hope of getting any. Unemployment and poverty are endemic.

Just the other day, Hancock County over in eastern Georgia failed to meet its payroll. The public till had run dry. Even if the county finds enough pennies for its paychecks, Hancock still can't afford the most basic services for its citizens or make any investment that might lift the county out of the proverbial ditch. You will see the Hancock County story repeated over and over across Georgia, as farm jobs decline and small manufacturing plants head overseas.

For years, Hancock County and a small group of "Native Americans" have petitioned state government to allow construction of a casino. They have been ignored. Pious Georgia lawmakers are not interested in casinos. They might attract the wrong sort to Georgia's outback. Tony Soprano just wouldn't fit in.

Members of the General Assembly seem to forget that the most popular program ever instituted in Georgia is the state-sponsored lottery. Also, our legislators overlook the steady stream of Georgians heading daily to Cherokee, N.C., the Mississippi Gulf Coast and even Las Vegas and Atlantic City to engage in casino betting.

Gambling is so important in Mississippi that Gov. Haley Barber has made restoring the casinos his No. 1 priority in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He understands that reopening 13 licensed gambling houses collecting $500,000 daily in state taxes is essential to Mississippi's recovery.

Surely, Georgia has a few elected leaders who are at least as smart as those in other parts of the Bible Belt.

As most of you know, I have been unalterably opposed to gambling. Many of you are, too, but we must take care of our own. As farms and industries disappear, starting casinos remains one of the few money-generating options left open to us.

We must be realistic. The Georgia Lottery, as it is currently designed, cannot continue to sustain the generous HOPE Scholarship program. An exploding population and increasing college costs keep pressure on state government to expand HOPE. The lottery alone is not enough to ensure that HOPE stays afloat. Woe to the governor who advocates serious cutbacks - or even dares suggest the lottery ought to be shelved.

You don't have to be from Mississippi to recognize that carefully controlled gaming could be a double boon for Georgia. It would provide added revenue for HOPE and new jobs for "the other Georgia" - the desperately poor Hancock-like counties of our state.

To be sure, my friends and allies on the religious right will decry casino gambling as an unacceptable vice. It's a little late for that. Remember the lottery. Banning casinos from Georgia will not keep a single determined gambler away from the tables. Prohibiting gaming in Georgia only guarantees that the gamblers' cash goes elsewhere.

My mentor, Zell Miller, campaigned for years against the lottery. Finally, he saw the light. He recognized that the numbers game offered unparalleled opportunities for our brightest children to gain a college education. Playing high-risk politics, he changed his position and became the state's foremost advocate of the lottery. To his surprise, he found that Georgia voters were overwhelmingly on his side. I believe that realistic Georgians would join us today if we struck out in a new direction to keep millions of tax dollars at home and revive dying sections of our state.

Thank you for your attentiveness, and good luck.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net . His Web site is www.billshipp.com . His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.