VALDOSTA – Lawmakers want to know if Georgia communities will roll the dice on legalized gambling.
Hosted at the James H. Rainwater Conference Center, the House Special Committee on Economic Growth will hold a meeting open to the public, 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19. The committee, co-chaired by Georgia State Reps. Brett Harrell (R-Snellville), Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) and (R-Savannah), was formed to research new revenue streams and new opportunities to grow the state economy. One of those opportunities would be the possible legalization of gaming, or gambling.
The committee was formed in mid-October where three days of hearings took place in Atlanta. Now, it hits the road to meet with communities across Georgia.
"The most important thing that we can receive when we come to Valdosta is the input from local citizens," Harrell said. "We want to hear firsthand from the citizens. Are you interested in having an opportunity to vote on this issue?"
Valdosta is a hugely important piece of the economic puzzle with its close proximity to the state of Florida, Stephens said.
The committee hopes revenue from potential gaming industries would help buoy programs such as the HOPE scholarship and state health-care options.
"All of this is about economic development, of course," Stephens said. "The tax revenues that will come in to close the gap on the HOPE scholarship, but even more important now is we all three believe that health care is an even bigger issue to fund with tagging who are underinsured and uninsured, including hospitals."
Since 1992, the state has had one form of gaming in the lottery, but casinos, horse racing, sports betting, etc., are still illegal in the Peach State.
"Georgia has always been slow – and probably rightly so – to move forward on a number of industries that have some negative impact," Harrell said. "We know a certain percentage, a small percentage, will become addicted to gaming, and it's a real issue."
He related gaming addictions to addiction issues with alcohol.
Lawmakers cannot legalize gambling. They can, however, introduce a constitutional amendment to referendum ballots and allow residents to decide.
"It's a big deal. So in light of the budget cuts we're looking at, there's not any other place I know of to get the revenue," Stephens said. "Bottom line on all this stuff is that people from Georgia need the opportunity to vote on the issue."
If the potential constitutional amendment passes, lawmakers would convene the following year to hash out the details of how the state would regulate the new gaming industries.
Additionally, there is a possibility local communities would be able to vote on legalizing gaming in their areas through a local option vote on the ballot.
"Some communities may invite it," Harrell said. "Others may not."