Casinos say they would pay more taxes if allowed in Georgia

SAVANNAH — Would legalizing casinos be worth it if they paid more taxes?

State lawmakers exploring whether to expand gambling in Georgia heard for the first time Monday casino operators may be willing to pay as much as 20 percent in state taxes in order to operate in Georgia. That’s a significant increase from a current proposal that would set a tax rate of 12 percent.

“We want to be good neighbors,” said Jay Dorris, president and CEO of PCI Gaming — which under the Wind Creek Hospitality brand operates six casino properties in Alabama and Florida for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

State House and Senate study committees are meeting all day in Savannah as part of the third such hearing on the issue. The committees first met on the issue for two consecutive days in September. Then, they heard only from proponents focused squarely on how to move ahead with approval. The casino industry has already hired more than a dozen lobbyists to help make its case.

While Monday’s agenda includes a number of opponents, including those from the Georgia Baptist Convention, most of the morning testimony was dominated by supporters of the effort to legalize both casinos and parimutuel betting on horse racing.

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The companies are selling themselves as legitimate and transparent businesses that welcome regulations. They also have stressed community involvement and said they are not looking for tax incentives or financial giveaways in order to do business in Georgia.

A legislative proposal now on the table calls for up to six “destination” casino resort licenses that would be allowed across five geographic zones in Georgia: Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, Savannah and South Georgia. The proposal sets aside two licenses for a broadly defined metro Atlanta zone, although one would be more limited than the other. Others are hoping to bring horse racing to the state.

One estimate suggests at least $280 million annually in new state tax revenue from casinos, while racing advocates claim up to an additional $25 million in new tax revenue could come annually from parimutuel betting. All that money has been proposed as a boost toward the state’s premier education programs, including the HOPE scholarship for college students and early childhood pre-k classes.

But the gambling proposals also have their critics and face, at least for now, opposition from Gov. Nathan Deal.

Deal has left open the possibility he would change his mind, but only if the industry agreed to a significantly higher tax rate than the 12 percent currently proposed. Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that he thought that rate would need to be anywhere from 24 to 35 percent of gross revenue.

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