Legislation to legalize casinos filed in Georgia

Slot machines at the Golden Nugget casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

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Slot machines at the Golden Nugget casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Legislation legalizing casino gambling in Georgia has officially been filed in the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 79, sponsored by state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, and House Bill 158, sponsored state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, are joint measures that come as backers have tried to craft a compromise that appeals to as broad a base as possible.

They tout using the proceeds from gaming to boost the state’s popular HOPE scholarship program, in addition to the creation of jobs and a jolt of tax revenue to local governments. Opponents, meanwhile, have objected on moral grounds, saying gambling breeds crime and hurts vulnerable citizens.

The bills confirm what both Beach and Stephens had said would be scaled-back plans. While they initially talked of allowing up to six casinos statewide, the legislation doesn’t mention the word “casino” once. Instead, it would allow up to two gaming “destination resorts” — one in Atlanta and one in either Savannah, Columbus or Augusta. And it would create a five-member oversight commission modeled on Nevada.

The "resorts" would be taxed at 20 percent, well above the industry's preferred rate of about 12 percent and much closer to Gov. Nathan Deal's preferred rate of 24 percent.

Seventy percent of proceeds from gambling would go toward the HOPE scholarship, a merit-based, state-funded college scholarship program. The other 30 percent would go toward a new needs-based scholarship.

Beach and Stephens confirmed details of the legislation earlier this week. They still face an uphill battle with state leaders over whether the state should expand gambling.

“I still have some questions in my mind about casinos in Georgia,” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said Thursday. “I’m asking members of the House to really go back and engage with their constituents on this issue. This is a big, big decision. It involves a lot of different issues. I still have questions and I still have some concerns. I’ll read the bill and we’ll see where everything ends up.”

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this report.