Half Flip
On bringing casino gambling and other gaming to Georgia

Nathan Deal on Wednesday, August 18th, 2010 in a gubernatorial campaign forum

Deal makes controversial statements about casino gambling

GOP gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal's recent statements on gambling made some conservatives cringe.

During a forum on tourism in Savannah, Deal said the state should keep an "open mind" about casino gambling and other types of gaming.

Conservative Christian groups objected, and seven days later, Deal told a television reporter that he didn't "favor it on a personal basis. I just don’t think you can gamble yourself out of a bad economy."

News stories said Deal had a "change of heart" or was "not as open-minded" on the issue as he was before.

Did Deal flip-flop?

The AJC's PolitiFact Georgia took a closer look at Deal's statements and his record as a former U.S. congressman.

Gambling wasn't an issue during the primary elections, but it is important among the social conservatives who helped Deal win a squeaker against Republican runoff opponent and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

Members of the Georgia Christian Coalition and the Georgia Baptist Convention did not ask Deal for his position on gambling, their officials told the AJC's PolitiFact Georgia.

Neither group endorses candidates, but if Deal did say he was open to looking into gambling, "it would have made a difference in the runoff," said Jerry Luquire, president of the Georgia Christian Coalition.

Deal made his statement on gambling Aug. 18 during a Savannah Area Tourism Leadership Council forum on tourism. It was in response to a question by WTOC-TV anchor Sonny Dixon, who interviewed Deal and opponent Democrat Roy Barnes separately.

"How do you feel about gaming, whether it was horse racing, casinos, whatever, in Georgia?" Dixon asked. "And if you‘re in favor of it, what do you think will be the process, how do you feel the process would go generally?"

"Well, I certainly think that we ought to be open to discussions like that," Deal replied. "I do know there have been both successes and monstrous failures in terms of gaming in other states. I don’t think we should go into it with our eyes blinded. We ought to understand all of the ramifications of it to do it -- the bad, the social, and the costs associated with it that are sometimes not discussed in the general, opening debates about those things."

After a brief aside about a horse he once owned, Deal added: "But I get there are potentials. We should look at it with an open mind. And we should not say 'no' just because of any particular bias one way or the other. I’m willing to keep an open mind with that and let's take a look at all the facts before we make a decision."

Deal stopped short of endorsing casinos, but did say there are benefits to them and he supports looking into them in detail.

Gambling foe Ray Newman, a lobbyist for the state Baptist Convention, was so concerned by Deal's statement that he called the candidate. He declined to give details of their conversation, saying it was private.

But Newman did say this of Deal and casinos:

"I don't know what his position is," Newman said.

After the flap, Deal talked with WSB-TV reporter Lori Geary. Deal's spokesman talked with The Associated Press.

Deal told Geary: "Well, I don’t favor it on a personal basis. I just don’t think you can gamble yourself out of a bad economy," and "What I was saying was that I would keep an open mind to suggestions of legislators."

Later, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson told The Associated Press: "He [Deal] personally opposes casino gambling," and "Nathan does not believe gambling is the best way to create jobs."

Deal's nearly two-decade record as a congressman shed little light on his views. While we did find votes against Internet gambling, we found no record he voted on casinos or other types of gaming. That's not surprising. The decision to allow casinos is made at the state level.

We went to Robinson to clarify the issue. He repeated what Deal told WSB-TV and the AP, emphasizing that the issue was moot because gambling is against the state constitution. Expanding it would require a constitutional amendment, which cannot be vetoed by the governor.

But governors do have significant sway. A governor, after all, has the state's bully pulpit and all the clout that goes with it.

Legislators have to approve a proposed amendment by a two-thirds vote to get it on the ballot. They also have to pass a bill enacting it. A governor's opinion on a proposal can make or break it, said Steve Anthony, who has worked at the state Capitol and is a lecturer at Georgia State University.

For instance, Gov. Zell Miller campaigned for a lottery to fund education initiatives such as the HOPE scholarship for college-bound students with good grades. As a result, the Georgia Lottery was founded in 1992.

Also, the governor appoints the Georgia Lottery Board. Nearly two years ago, it was approached with a plan for opening a casino with video lottery terminals in Underground Atlanta. The board never voted on the issue, and the plan died.

Robinson said Deal would appoint board members who will assure the HOPE scholarship's financial strength "without an expansion of gambling."

So where does this leave us?

Much of Deal's position on gambling is unclear. What, if anything, would it take to get him to endorse it? Would he commission a study on its economic impact? And what kinds of action might he take if Georgians decided to push for it?

Like Baptist Convention lobbyist Newman, we don't know.

But since the controversy, Deal has shifted what he says publicly about gambling. He's no longer using the phrase "open mind." He has not mentioned studying the pros and cons of gambling, either.

Furthermore, Deal said he would support Lottery Board members who will support ensuring the financial stability of the HOPE scholarship without expanding gambling.

In other words, Deal was saying one thing before the controversy. Now he's saying another. We give Deal a Half Flip.