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Gambling expansion, tort reform on Georgia lawmakers’ to-do list

ATLANTA – Onlookers are placing bets on whether Georgia will make a push to expand gambling in the state this year, but the odds for such a wager remain unclear.

Georgia’s 2020 legislative session begins Monday.

Faced with a budget shortfall this year, lawmakers may be more willing than in years past to take a hard look at ways to increase revenue, including allowing sports betting, horse racing, casino gambling or some combination of the three.

Expanding gambling would require a state constitutional amendment. Two-thirds of each chamber of the General Assembly must approve, followed by voters in a referendum. Georgia could also allow each county’s voters a separate referendum on local gambling.

House Speaker David Ralston indicated in a news conference Thursday that he favored putting the question to voters for a referendum.

“We’ve talked about this issue here for years, and one of these days we’re either going to have to say ’we’re going to quit talking and we’re going to vote it, however it comes out is the way it comes out,” said Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican.

“At some point, I think it is appropriate to let the people of Georgia have the final word,” he said.

Gov. Brian Kemp has said he won’t try to block a gambling expansion, but the Republican recently told WRBL-TV that he doesn’t think multiple casinos in different cities would be “good for our state.”

In addition to a gambling expansion, here are a look at some of the other issues that could come into play during this upcoming session:

TORT REFORM

Some Republicans and business groups are pushing for efforts to limit lawsuits in Georgia state courts, after some earlier limits were struck down. A group of senators and others submitted a report calling on lawmakers to try to find a way to tighten caps on damages.

They want to limit damages for defective products to $250,000, make it harder to sue property owners when something bad happens on their property that’s caused by someone else, and bar plaintiff’s lawyers from mentioning a specific sum of money when arguing before a jury. They also want to place some limits on companies that lend money to plaintiff’s lawyers pursuing a case and place limits on how many documents someone can demand in preparing for trial.

A group critical of plaintiff’s lawsuits named Georgia a “litigation hellhole,” citing high verdicts and verdicts against property owners and doctors, in a possible sign of a coordinated push.

ATLANTA AIRPORT

An effort for the state to take over Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport from Georgia’s largest city roiled last year’s session. Supporters say corruption allegations justified a takeover. The Senate favored an outright takeover, while the House proposed an oversight committee like the one that keeps an eye on the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit System. The oversight proposal could be back, but Ralston is cool to an outright takeover.

LOCAL ZONING

City and county governments are gearing up for a fight against homebuilders over how much local governments can regulate construction standards. Homebuilders argue regulation of things like vinyl siding and roofing shingles drive up housing costs, and are supported by a House committee report. Local governments say they need to protect local property values and that the state is trying to take away what should be local powers.

RURAL TRANSIT

Ralston says he looks for movement on an effort to fund public transit outside of metro Atlanta. The House passed a bill last year to divide the rest of Georgia into eight zones and provide money by taxing ride-hailing services. The Georgia Department of Transportation had opposed the bill because it would have created a new state department just for transit.

SEAT BELTS

Some lawmakers aim to make Georgia join 30 other states that require back seat passengers to wear seat belts as well as front seat passengers. A Senate study committee also recommends that juries be allowed to hold it against someone suing following a wreck if the plaintiff wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

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