Casino, horse racing reps pitch gambling to Georgia House panel

A House panel heard what amounted to sales pitches from several representatives in the gambling industry on Tuesday. AJC photo

A House panel heard what amounted to sales pitches from several representatives in the gambling industry on Tuesday. AJC photo

Georgia has yet to expand legal gambling beyond the lottery, but that isn't stopping a three-day parade of representatives from the world's gaming industry from pitching their businesses to state lawmakers.

One after another, operators of casinos and representatives from the horse racing industry told a panel of lawmakers on Tuesday why they thought Georgia needs to allow their business to come to the state. Legislators will get an even bigger earful Wednesday and Thursday.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brett Harrell, who is one of a trio of chairmen overseeing a House panel tasked with examining the economic benefits of allowing gambling in the state, said the meetings won't focus on whether Georgia should expand gaming.

“The committee’s focus is not to debate issues on whether or not a specific industry ought to be welcome into the state,” the Snellville Republican said. “Our focus is to compare impacts to existing business and quality of life as we look at new industries, new revenue streams (and) new investment in the state of Georgia.”

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

Representatives from Wynn Resorts, Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition and others touted gaming success stories in other states.

Over the next two days, representatives from more casinos, technology companies that offer sports betting and professional sports teams are expected to speak as well.

Virginia Galloway, a lobbyist for the Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition, said it felt as though Tuesday’s meeting was a series of sales pitches. But, Galloway said, she believes expanding gaming will lead to a rise in Georgians with gambling addictions and financial problems, and attract criminal activity around casinos and horse tracks.

“Georgia is too good a place for us to expand gambling further,” she said. “If you look at the states that allow it, those are not states we want to be like.”

Georgia senators also are studying the potential economic impact of expanding gambling, which supporters say would bring thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Georgia Lottery-funded HOPE scholarship.

Supporters for years have pushed the idea, but a recent call from Gov. Brian Kemp to cut state spending has renewed interest in finding new ways for the state to earn money.

Adding horse racing or casino gambling in the state would require Georgians to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the expansion.

Getting a constitutional amendment through the General Assembly is a heavy lift. Two-thirds of each chamber would have to approve sending an amendment to voters.

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.

Many conservative groups and religious organizations 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.

Wynn Development President Chris Gordon walked lawmakers through the opening of the company’s newest casino in the Boston area, which he said was a $2.6 billion project built without state tax breaks. He said it has created more than 5,000 jobs and is expected to provide $201 million annually in state taxes.

While he didn’t explicitly pitch his company for Georgia, he encouraged lawmakers to examine Wynn’s record.

“You can’t just take the beautiful glossy proposals you’re going to get and believe them,” he said. “You’ve got to kick the tires.”

House Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican who is a co-chairman of the special committee, called the proposed expansion of gambling a "complicated issue" that ultimately would be decided by Georgia voters.

“Always remember: Legislators can’t legalize gaming in the state of Georgia,” Powell said. “If it goes forward, it will be because of the wishes of the public.”