Students tracking proposed casino bill to help fund HOPE Scholarship

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - HOPE scholarship recipients in Georgia are keeping an eye on a bill that's once again being pushed by state lawmakers to boost funding for the program: the casino bill, also known as the Destination Resort Act.

The casino bill has been very controversial the last couple of years, which is why it hasn't passed. In the meantime, funds for the HOPE Scholarship continue to dwindle and students say something needs to be done.

"Every day there's people trying to get into college and trying to afford it," said Ashlin Cross, former HOPE recipient.  

Ashlin Cross is just one of many college students in Georgia who has seen both sides of the HOPE Scholarship. She was once a recipient and is now trying to earn it back.

"Right now I'm working full time and I'm student full-time so it's very hard," said Cross. "One of the benefits of having it is, it's just easier."

Cross, like many students, is hopeful this scholarship fund will be around long enough to get them through school.

"I still have a year," said Logan Lawrence, HOPE recipient. "A year and a half so hopefully they will decide on something."

The Georgia Lottery currently funds the HOPE Scholarship and the state's Pre-K program, but that money has been dwindling. Despite making eligibility requirements more rigorous a few years ago lawmakers still haven't agreed on a solution to stimulate more money into the scholarship fund.

Rep. Ron Stephens from Savannah has been pushing the proposal of bringing casinos to Georgia. The bill died last year but it's on the table again, and if passed, it could mean there's a Vegas-style casino in Savannah's future.

"We saw a bill last year, we've seen a bill this year and my take on it is, we'll see a bill again next year," said Michael Owens, CEO, Tourism Leadership Council. "I'm not sure it's going to be successful."

Tourism Leadership Council president and CEO says they even polled many of their members and there are still a lot of mixed feelings about the bill.

"It was almost 50/50 as to whether or not they thought it would be positive for their business, tourism or for the community," said Owens.

Owens says there's no doubt that the HOPE Scholarship needs a new source of revenue but he's not convinced a casino bill is the answer.

He says only about 50 percent of their members are in support of it because there's a lot still unknown about how a casino would impact the local community.

While there's been speculation, nothing has been set in stone as to where the casinos will be located or how much will actually go toward the HOPE scholarship.

A study that was recently released, also pointed out that it's unclear the type of crime and gambling addiction problems this type of facility could attract.

Owens believes there's more than one agenda tied to this bill and that it's not just about the hope scholarship

"If it was the answer to that then this bill would have been approved and made happen when Hope was first rolled out. Is it a revenue stream? Yes. There are many other revenue streams, is it the appropriate one? Maybe that's the question to ask. And again, with so little information, it's simply too early to tell," Owens said.

Of course, he says TLC supports the HOPE Scholarship but this may not be the solution.

For students, it makes no difference to them whether it's casinos, as long as there is a solution.

"I can see where that would generate a lot of income, I'm sure there are lots of other ways," said Cross.

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