Excitement is high to expand gambling in Georgia, but so is skepticism

Caesars Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Caesars Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

A Georgia House panel that met three times last week to study whether to expand gambling didn’t start its hearings with the traditional invocation from a lawmaker.

But prayer might be what is needed to get two-thirds of each legislative chamber to agree to send a constitutional amendment to Georgia voters that would allow casinos, horse racing and sports betting.

It’s a saga that’s played out for years.

Representatives from the gaming industry pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into Georgia, hoping lobbyists can persuade lawmakers to support expanding gaming. And every year gambling bills get filed and languish.

Rinse, repeat.

Every session starts out with optimism from the pro-casino, pro-horse-racing crowd.

Supporters this year are energized by a recent call from Gov. Brian Kemp to cut state spending — making them think 2020 is the year lawmakers will get behind the premise that expanding gambling will increase state revenue.

Adding horse racing or casino gambling would require Georgians to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the expansion. And the Legislature’s lawyers have encouraged lawmakers to pursue a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting if they want that.

"I have never seen so much energy and so much enthusiasm about this issue," said state Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican who for years has sought to bring horse racing to Georgia. "I think there is a momentum to 'let's go ahead and let the voters decide.' "

Supporters believe an expansion of the gambling industry could bring thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Georgia Lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. Conservative groups and religious organizations oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime.

“I think this is always an excuse looking for a reason,” said Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “The gambling industry is seeing this as an opportunity to move this forward.”

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.

Getting a constitutional amendment through the General Assembly is a heavy lift. Stakeholders on both sides of the issue said they’re not sure whether enough — or even any — lawmakers have switched their position to get the 120 state representatives and 37 senators needed to pass the legislation.

Studying the issue

When House Speaker David Ralston this summer tasked a committee with looking for ways to increase state revenue, it was clear the panel would have a strong focus on the gambling industry. Beach already was leading a committee to study the same issue.

But Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for Ralston, said the speaker has not taken a position on whether the industry should come to Georgia. Instead, lawmakers were asked to determine the best way to regulate the industry if the Legislature decided to put the question to voters.

“This is about dialogue and informed decisions,” McMichen said. “Everybody has always stopped at the question of ‘should or shouldn’t.’

“If we’re going to ask the question and ask it completely, folks need to know if it gets on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, what is it going to look like?”

Lawmakers last week heard from a parade of representatives from the world's gaming industry who pitched their businesses.

Representatives from companies and organizations such as MGM Resorts, Wynn Development, the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition and others touted successful gaming operations in other states.

Those businesses have hired at least 30 lobbyists at the Capitol to push their agenda.

And each lawmaker on the House and Senate panels walked away with his or her own vision of what expanded gambling would look like in Georgia.

If lawmakers decide to move forward with expanding gaming, they will have to determine which form should be allowed — casinos, horse racing, sports betting or a combination — and where any revenue should go, be it HOPE, rural health care or somewhere else.

House Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican and a co-chairman of Ralston's special committee, said at the very least, it would be subject to a "very rigid regulatory system."

Powell said he wants an independent regulatory gaming commission that would authorize any gambling activities and determine where the money goes.

‘Let the people vote’

The legislative caucuses haven’t taken positions on the question of gambling because members are split on the issue.

Polls have shown that most Georgians want to expand gambling. A 2017 poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 56% of Georgians surveyed supported casino gambling.

But Griffin, with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, called allowing a constitutional amendment for vices a way for legislators to sidestep making tough decisions. He compared it to Georgia’s path toward allowing Sunday alcohol sales at stores in 2011.

“What eventually, I think, took that over the goal line for them was all this constant hounding of ‘let the people vote, let the people vote,’ so they would never have to talk about the real issue,” he said. “But that’s the point you have to understand. Legislators are elected because the people expect them to do all of the heavy lifting.”

State Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat, said while he recognizes that he was sent to the Legislature to serve his constituents, Georgians should be able to make this decision for themselves.

“I know usually when you go to the doctor, you don’t tell him what’s wrong with you. He has to tell you,” Williams said. “But we’re not doctors. We’re listeners.”