Exclusive: Bills would legalize casino resorts in Georgia

Legislation that would open the door to up to six casino resorts in Georgia will be introduced in the state House on Thursday.

The measures, both by Economic Development Committee Chairman Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, would generate $250 million a year to support the HOPE scholarship, according to a briefing paper obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The bill, and its required proposed constitutional amendment, are not expected to pass this year but, instead, will begin a conversation that supporters hope leads to the amendment being on the statewide ballot in November 2016.

“The tourism destination casino has been way over due to get tourists into Georgia and their dollars into Georgia to fund higher education and pre-k,” Stephens told the AJC.

Should it pass, local governments would have the option of asking their voters to allow a casino to be built. The state would be divided into five zones and no more than six casino licenses would be allowed, each overseen by the Georgia Lottery Corp.

To prove themselves committed and capable of pulling off the kinds of resorts envisioned, casino developers would be required to invest $1 billion in the Atlanta area casino and $200 million for a license in other parts of the state.

Legalizing casino gambling is not a new effort in Georgia. A recent effort to build a casino resort in DeKalb County has fizzled. Past proposals to build casinos in Underground Atlanta or elsewhere ran into fierce opposition from the Georgia Lottery board or Gov. Nathan Deal, among many others.

Supporters of Stephens’ plan hope their effort is met with more support. The help build backing, casino and entertainment giant MGM commissioned a poll by McLaughlin & Associates — a top pollster for Georgia Republican leaders — that found nearly 60 percent of Georgians support legalizing casinos to benefit the HOPE scholarship.

The poll, taken in January, found that 57 percent of poll respondents would vote to amend the constitution to allow casino resorts to benefit HOPE. That includes 72 percent of Democrats, but only 47 percent of Republicans. Still, a plurality of Republicans support the idea, as only 43 percent said they were opposed.

Efforts to reach officials with MGM were not immediately successful. The company, however is already building an $800 million casino rsort in Massachusetts and the $1.2 billion MGM National Harbor outside Washington, D.C.

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