Ga. lawmakers weigh gambling

David Ralston

ATLANTA — Lawmakers are weighing the pros and cons of legalized gambling, but ultimately, it’s up to voters to decide.

A constitutional amendment could bring casinos, horse racing and sports betting to Georgia. Both House and Senate lawmakers are hoping to break down what this would mean for the peach state.

Georgia has been slow, way behind much of the rest of the country, in legalizing any form of gambling. It wasn't until 1992 that voters finally approved a lottery. Revenue from the lottery has historically gone toward education funding.

House Speaker David Ralston tasked the Special Committee on Economic Growth with exploring new ventures in Georgia.

“Our obligation and our duties as members, through this is to pick up the positives and the negatives and let the people of Georgia know. And if it goes forward," Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, co-chairman of the committee, said during the first meeting, “it will be because of the wishes of the public.”

Legislators have tossed around a lot of ideas, including a pitch that revenue from gambling could augment education funding but also cover losses from Gov. Brian Kemp’s state-mandated budget cuts. But representatives of Georgia's large faith-based community are questioning if the reward is worth the moral price.

Casino executives who spoke during the first day of committee meetings said fears of recession have pushed states to legalize gaming — citing Massachusetts as the most recent example after the construction of Encore Boston Harbor.

Similar fears seem to be motivating Georgia lawmakers, after the governor’s chief economist warned, during budget hearings last month, of a “50/50 chance” of a state recession.

Chris Gordon, executive of Wynn Casino, touted growing the workforce, incubating urban renewal and community volunteerism as residual benefits of building a new casino in Boston. While gambling only makes up 7% of the products offered at the resort, Gordon said, it brings in the most revenue.

Massachusetts lawmakers detailed specific percentages of how the gross tax revenue would be divided among different funds in legislation outlining the recent terms and conditions of legalization.

The Georgia Horse Racing Coalition and the Atlanta Motor Speedway president were among other business leaders supporting the effort to legalize gambling in Georgia.

Carl Bouckaert, chairman of the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition, said a proposed $700 million investment spread across three tracks — one in Atlanta and two in more rural areas — could create 19,000 jobs during construction, with 11,000 new jobs remaining after construction. Rural parts of the state would see 7,000 of those jobs, he said.

“Rural Georgia continues to struggle and here’s a really nice opportunity to bring some really nice jobs and industry, sustainable industry to rural Georgia,” he said.

Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark has eyes on what he called a “major destination resort” — a $1 billion complex that would feature a hotel, convention space, retail, restaurants and entertainment, he said.

Like a casino resort, gambling only makes up 10% of the products that would be offered, Clark said, but would bring in the most revenue.

According to campaign finance reports, Atlanta Motor Speedway contributed $1,000 since the beginning of the year to campaigns for Reps. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, and Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, all co-chairs of the economic growth committee considering the legalization of gambling.

Their state Senate counterparts, Sens. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, and Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who chair the Senate study committee on gambling, also received $1,000 contributions from the speedway.

House Speaker Ralston who called for the committee also received $1,000 from the speedway this year.

The second day of the special committee featured more casino and betting boosters.

But tribal representatives gave Georgia lawmakers a taste of the benefits of even a smaller operation. The Poarch Creek Indian Tribe — a sovereign tribe mainly located in Alabama — introduced gaming to rural Alabama areas under the regulation of the federal government and their own tribal gaming entity.

The tribe's Wind Creek Hospitality business has focused on bringing a smaller, family-friendly, resort-style operation to what it called "the middle of a cotton field.” The complex has a separate entrance through a non-gaming portion of the facility for families.

“It’s something we are proud of and we can do, but not let the Poarch Creek Indians be only about gaming,” Robbie McGhee, vice president of the Poarch Creek Indian Tribal Council, said. “If you’re going to do any type of gaming, it needs to be focused on creating those destination resort-style places that you can be proud of, that you know that is going to bring that economic return."

McGhee brought the local sheriff of the county where the casino sits, who testified against the preconception that casinos spike crime rates.

“The good thing about casinos are there are cameras everywhere, everywhere,” Heath Jackson, sheriff of Escambia County in Alabama, said. “Most people who are looking to meet prostitutes or do drugs are looking to do it where nobody’s watching.”

Rep. Rick Williams, R-Milledgeville, asked about increases in domestic disputes due to the casino's presence. Jackson said he has not seen a correlation between the two.

But evangelicals have long argued against gambling as a “social vice.” The Rev. Mike Griffin, representative from the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said the committee has been hearing straight from the “foxes in charge of the hen house.” The Baptist Church in Georgia represents about 1.4 million residents.

“I am asking you to consider what has been shot down for two days,” Griffin said, “and that is the social cost of this industry, that has been proven over decades now.”

Griffin listed the concern of the religious community that gambling and casinos could increase human trafficking, under-age gambling and have negative effects on the foster-care system.

“You can tax as much as you want and pour as much money out of it but it still doesn’t change the nature of the character of what you’re talking about,” Griffin said.

Despite arguments for gambling or against it, initial investment costs versus revenue to the state was the main focus the first two days of the special committee. A testimonial from building associations praised the creation of jobs and on-site training to fill labor shortages. Cross-industry benefits of casinos, such as film locations, was brought up in regard to Georgia’s expansive film industry.

Still, lawmakers aren't the ones pulling the strings of the decision. In the Georgia General Assembly, a two-thirds vote is needed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. A few bills permitting casinos were pushed on lawmakers in the recent past without gaining much headway.

“Do we allow the folks in Georgia, are they smart enough in Georgia, to make a decision of whether they want to have other activities regarding gaming, any of the gaming," Stephens, co-chairman, said. "Or perhaps the question we should have to the public is do we allow any gaming at all?”

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