Call for budget cuts spurs panel to explore expanding gambling in Ga.

Slot machines on the casino floor inside the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cincinnati Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. File photo.

Slot machines on the casino floor inside the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cincinnati Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. File photo.

When House Speaker David Ralston recently announced a new committee to look for ways to increase state revenue, the makeup of it made clear that casinos would be high on the priority list.

The Georgia Senate, meanwhile, has already set a hearing on gambling for next week.

Ralston announced the formation of the House Special Committee on Economic Growth last week, shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp called on state agencies to cut their budgets.

The panel is comprised of 15 House members and is led by a trio of committee chairmen — including House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Ron Stephens, who for years has sought to bring casino gambling to Georgia.

“We’re going to look at all sources of revenue,” the Savannah Republican said. “But all I’ve ever asked is for the people of Georgia to have an opportunity to vote (on casinos).”

Stephens said he wants voters to approve a constitutional amendment next year that creates a gaming commission with the power to expand gambling. The commission would decide if Georgia should have a few casinos, bring horse racing to the state or allow sports betting.

Various gambling bills have struggled to gain traction in the Georgia Legislature in recent years.

Georgia backers say their proposals could create thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Georgia Lottery-funded education programs such as the HOPE scholarship. Many conservative groups and faith leaders oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime. Others have questioned the rosy revenue predictions offered by supporters, especially as more states expand gambling and compete for customers.

Kemp has said that while he opposes casino gambling, he will not stand in the way of putting an amendment before voters as long as it guarantees the revenue will benefit HOPE.

Kemp's administration sent a memo to state agencies earlier this month telling them to offer 4% cuts to their budgets this year and 6% in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.

State Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock Republican who has been an outspoken opponent of expanding gambling in Georgia, said Kemp's call for budget cuts doesn't change his stance.

“While there would likely be some revenue increases due to gambling, this revenue would be more than offset by the increased costs to our state due to gambling addiction, sex trafficking, loss of jobs, less spending by those who gamble, small businesses closing, increased crime and bankruptcies,” he said.

The committee’s members likely will hear some of those concerns as they hold meetings across the state, starting in the next month or so.

House Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican who is a co-chairman on the special committee, said while he hasn't committed to supporting the expansion of gambling, it might be time to put the issue before voters.

“We’ve reached a point we got so many gaming bills in for destination casinos, horse racing and all those types of things, and pressure is coming more and more out there from the public — they’re indicating they want to vote,” he said. “No legislator can ever be accused of legalizing gambling because the only people who can legalize are the voters.”

Powell's colleagues in the Senate will begin a gambling panel of their own next Tuesday when a study committee holds its first meeting.

The committee was created after Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican who is running in the 6th Congressional District race, was unable to get a resolution to ask voters to allow up to three horse-racing tracks in Georgia across the finish line.

Legislation pushed by Stephens suffered a similar fate.

Both resolutions can be considered when lawmakers return in January.

But Cantrell said instead of revisiting gambling legislation next year, the state should look at other sources if they want to bring new industry into Georgia.

“Our economy is in great shape. Let’s keep doing the things that got us to this place,” he said. “Why should we ‘gamble’ with gambling? Most states that have enacted gambling in recent years have done so as an economic Hail Mary because their economy is in such bad shape. It doesn’t work.”