No longer a longshot: Georgia Legislature poised to advance gambling legislation

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No longer a longshot: Georgia Legislature poised to advance gambling legislation

The odds against Georgia legalizing gambling beyond the state’s lottery get shorter every year.

A savvy bettor might even lay some action now.

The future of gaming in Georgia has gained so much traction among legislators that the organizers of the Biennial Institute, a pre-legislative session primer for lawmakers, devoted an hour-long session to the topic earlier this week. Already, bills that would legalize sports betting, parimutuel horse racing and casino resorts have been pre-filed ahead of the 2021-2022 legislative session.

The Georgia General Assembly convenes Jan. 11, 2021.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen in this next session,” said veteran Georgia House Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), the chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee. “The people want it; opinion polls and more importantly public hearings show that. It’s time the legislature give Georgians that opportunity.”

Stephens has long championed legalized gambling, particularly as it related to casinos. He’s sponsored legislation in each of the last three two-year legislative sessions. But gambling has yet to garner the needed supermajority vote to pass either the Georgia House or the Georgia Senate.

Even if the legislature passes a gaming bill and Gov. Brian Kemp signs it, Georgians would make the final decision: Changing Georgia law requires a constitutional amendment, which can only be accomplished via statewide ballot referendum.

Local jurisdictions would have still a voice in whether horse racing tracks or casinos would be built in their cities and towns. Savannah is among the municipalities where local election officials have expressed opposition to a gambling destination being built within their limits.

Despite all the obstacles, the legalization of gambling is widely considered a safe bet among those who make laws under the Georgia Capitol’s gold dome.

Legalizing gambling “requires heavy lifting, and heavy lifting always requires bipartisanship,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), the longest-serving member of the Georgia General Assembly at 46 years. “I think we have that muscle right now.”

successful gambler will tell you, gaming success is less about luck than it is minding the details.

Pro-gambling legislators have invested an abundance of resources into studying the issue. They’ve come to realize that legalization depends largely on two factors: the type — sports betting, horse racing or casino resorts — and, more importantly, how the state will use the tax revenue.

Sports wagering is the most likely type to pass first, Stephens and others say. Thousands of Georgians already bet on football, basketball and golf online, so the only infrastructure requirement is the creation of a tax collection method. The state already has experience with taxing web-based transactions after enacting an e-commerce tax in 2019.

In addition, sports betting legalization is the “path of least resistance,” according to Stephens, as it could potentially be implemented without a statewide vote. The idea is to run sports wagering through the Georgia Lottery “as just another game for them.”

This shortcut is far from a sure thing, however. Three of the four lawmakers to speak about the future of gaming in Georgia at the Biennial Institute insisted that any new gambling legalization, including sports betting, be blessed through voter referendum.

“Each of them would require a constitutional amendment to do,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee. “The people need to agree to expanded forms.”

Legislators do agree that sports betting is less promising from a financial standpoint than horse racing or casinos. Projections of as much as $100 million in sports wagering tax revenue annually are too high, Sen. Cowsert said; $30 million to $50 million is a more accurate estimate.

Horse racing and casinos, meanwhile, would generate exponentially more tax revenue.

Forty states are home to horse racing facilities, and proceeds vary widely based on number of tracks and the range of wagering options, as many offer casino-style games and sports betting in addition al pari-mutuel wagering.

As for casino returns, Ohio's four destination casino resorts brought in approximately $280 million in state tax revenue in 2019. The state legalized casino gambling in 2009.

Beyond the debate over how Georgians bet, lawmakers also are of differing minds about where to direct the tax revenues generated by legalized gambling. Once seen largely as a way to supplement the education-related programs supported by the Georgia Lottery, specifically the HOPE Scholarship for college students and Pre-K for 4-year-olds, legislators are now discussing using new gaming tax dollars for other areas of need.

“Casino gambling should go to the No. 1 hole in the budget: health care,” said Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell). “There’s never been enough money and there never will be without it.”

Argued Rep. Smyre, “I’m advocating for needs-based scholarships” for those students who don’t qualify academically for the HOPE Scholarship. “And we need to come up with a stop-gap scholarship to help those already enrolled and close to graduation but run out of money.”

Location, location, location

Should Georgia voters legalize gambling, legislators expect plenty of action from local government officials and private developers interested in locating horse tracks or casino resorts in their areas.

Both enterprises would serve as economic drivers and job creators, Stephens said. The horse racing movement found its footing in 2019 once proponents billed it as a boon for Georgia’s farm country where horses could be bred and raised. Rural areas have lagged behind Georgia’s population centers in recent years in terms of growth and development; introducing a new industry centered around equine could spread the economic development wealth.

Casinos, meanwhile, have attracted attention among those along major travel corridors. Proponents envision destination resorts, not mere gambling halls, and several sites have already been identified, such as a large lakefront tract in Hartwell and interstate frontage near Augusta, Valdosta, Kingsland and Hinesville.

One well-established Georgia entertainment venue operator, Atlanta Motor Speedway owners Bruton Smith and his son Marcus, is willing to place a trifecta bet: They want to add a horse track and a casino, complete with a sports book, to his speedway complex located in Henry County outside Atlanta.

Another prospective home for gambling is in or near Savannah. Two interstates intersect nearby, and the city borders on South Carolina, a state where gambling remains illegal. A casino was discussed as part of future development plans for Hutchinson Island as recently as 2014.

Yet several current Savannah City Council members are opposed to the location of a casino within the city limits. They cited moral objections, specifically in regards to the propensity for gambling addiction and how it disproportionately impacts low-income residents. They also questioned the economic development value to the community, saying the overwhelming majority of jobs created by casino resorts would pay low wages.

The council discussed drafting an anit-gambling resolution earlier this year only to drop it with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

City pushback doesn’t trouble Stephens, who says casino operators are more likely to eye property in areas of Chatham County that flank Interstate 95 than they are Savannah sites.

“Look at a city like Port Wentworth, the first exit on the interstate on the Georgia side of the border,” Stephens said. “They’d end up with more new business and more tax revenue than they’d know what to do with.”

As bullish as many in the Georgia General Assembly seem on legalizing gambling, the panelists that spoke at the Biennial Institute encouraged their colleagues to hedge their bets on the issue. They too mentioned concerns about addictions as well as other unintended consequences.

”There is a certain universe for entertainment dollars and a certain universe for gambling dollars, and if we legalize gambling we’ll be trying to persuade Georgians and visitors to spend their dollars on gambling rather than out to dinner or to a movie,” Athens' Cowsert said. “Is that what’s best for Georgia’s businesses? We need to be careful with that.”

https://www.savannahnow.com/story/news/2020/12/10/legislation-legalize-gambling-gains-support-georgia-legislature/6502691002/