Are casinos in Georgia’s future? Kemp cracks open a door

A dealer conducts a game of roulette at the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

A dealer conducts a game of roulette at the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Gov. Brian Kemp signaled he won’t stand in the way of a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to allow casinos in Georgia, cracking the door open for the revival of a high-stakes debate about legalizing gambling.

Kemp’s spokesman said Tuesday that while the governor remains opposed to casino gambling, “hardworking Georgians will have the ultimate say if a constitutional amendment is placed on the ballot.”

His aides added that Kemp, who campaigned against the expansion of gambling, will insist that the new funds be used for the popular lottery-funded HOPE scholarship if a constitutional amendment passes.

The Republican’s stance elated pro-gambling advocates and triggered a new round of reviews. Shortly after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published Kemp’s stance, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s office said he was evaluating his position in light of the governor’s comments.

It came after lawmakers who back legalized gambling, unsure of Kemp's position on the issue and stung by a string of setbacks, embraced a new strategy to try to win over skeptical Georgia politicians.

Rather than outlining specific requirements for “destination resort facilities,” the gambling advocates this year favor a broad constitutional amendment seeking to legalize casinos — and then leave it to lawmakers to hash out the details later.

Separate measures introduced within the past week in the House and Senate would ask voters the same question: Should casino gambling be legalized to "preserve the long-term financial stability of the HOPE scholarship" and other education programs?

Kemp's stance seems likely to rev up debate over an issue that its champions feared was effectively dead after his November victory in the governor's race. During the campaign, Kemp and other Republicans touted their opposition to casinos and other forms of gambling.

The casino industry seemed to get the message. After years of high-dollar donations to lawmakers, the flow of contributions slowed. Supporters talked of a long-term approach. Some saw the legalization of horse racing, which recently passed a Senate committee, as a safer bet.

A ‘good sign?’

Casino advocates hope that Kemp's stance changes the dynamic. State Sen. Brandon Beach, one of the measure's main sponsors, compared the position to Nathan Deal's maneuvering as governor around the Sunday sales of alcohol.

While Deal personally opposed the idea, he supported letting communities vote on whether to allow it. Many local governments swiftly held referendums to legalize the sales, and lawmakers in 2018 let cities and counties hold another round of votes to allow Sunday sales of alcohol at restaurants and wineries to begin earlier.

“It’s a good sign,” said Beach, an Alpharetta Republican running for Congress next year. “It says that Kemp is going to let the people decide how to help bolster the HOPE scholarship.”

The shifting contours of the debate over casinos also brought a reminder of the stiff opposition it faces. State Sen. Bruce Thompson, one of Kemp's top allies, said he worried that allowing casinos would breed more pernicious problems.

“We brag about being the No. 1 place in the country to do business,” said Thompson, a Republican from White. “I’m not sure we want to monkey with that.”

He and other critics of the bill, including many conservative groups and faith leaders, see gambling as an immoral vice and worry that any expansion could breed crime and encourage an addictive habit. Some Democrats also demand a needs-based college scholarship.

The measure’s backers say legalizing casinos could create thousands of jobs, attract billions of dollars in investments and pump hundreds of millions into the HOPE program, which funds college scholarships and pre-kindergarten classes.

Gambling firms have circled metro Atlanta for years as one of the last major metropolitan areas in the nation without a full-fledged casino in close proximity. MGM Resorts pledged in 2015 to invest more than $1 billion to build a casino for the region if gambling became legal.

small legion of lobbyists for casino companies still roam the Capitol halls, including several for Wynn Resorts, another gambling magnate that hopes to build in Georgia. Michael Weaver, a company executive, pointed to a $2.6 billion resort casino built near Boston after a similar measure passed there.

“Wynn Resorts believes Georgia has strong potential for gaming and entertainment when and if the Legislature and Georgians decide they want to allow casino gaming,” he said.

Since the measure is a proposed constitutional amendment, it wouldn’t require Kemp’s signature — instead it needs two-thirds support in each chamber of the Legislature and approval by a majority of voters.

But Kemp’s position could pave the way for other skeptics of the measure in the Legislature to follow his lead.

What's not clear is where other legislative leaders stand. House Speaker David Ralston also opposes legalized gambling, but it's not yet known whether he would actively seek to block the legislation from coming to a vote if it first clears key committees. Ralston's office did not immediately comment.

In an interview, Duncan suggested he won’t use his powers as the Senate’s top official to block the legislation from a vote.

“I don’t have two-thirds of the chamber knocking hinges off my door for this to come forward. I’m certainly not spending any political chips to bring the measure forward,” Duncan said. “But at the end of the day, they’ll have their opportunity to talk about the issue.”

And supporters are also mindful of the fallout of Deal's policy shift on the issue. After years of forceful opposition, Deal said in 2017 that he wouldn't fight legislation to legalize casino gambling as long as it doesn't "devastate" the HOPE program. Still, the measure failed to gain significant traction.

The backers of the bill this year are still wary of Deal's warning. State Sen. Harold Jones Jr., an Augusta Democrat and a co-sponsor of the legislation, said any gambling initiative must funnel proceeds directly to the HOPE program.

“That’s the key,” Jones said. “We want to make sure we can continue to do what HOPE is designed to do, but we need a new funding source to do it.”

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