Gambling interests ante up in big way at Georgia Capitol

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Casino interests have placed big bets on top lawmakers over the past few months in hopes of getting legislation passed to expand gambling in Georgia.

Casino and horse-racing interests plowed more than $200,000 into the campaign war chests of leading legislators, and they paid for a fundraiser in November for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate’s president.

When a special legislative panel studying how expanding gambling could boost funding for the HOPE scholarship met last fall, the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition picked up the nearly $500 tab to feed committee members.

About three dozen of the state’s top contract lobbyists have been hired in support of gambling expansion in Georgia. Included in that count are 16 — or about one for every four state senators — by MGM Resorts International. Most of them were hired in the second half of 2015 or early 2016, and MGM alone has signed at least five prominent lobby firms.

One Capitol denizen, who doesn’t have a casino client, referred to it as a “full lobbyist employment act.”

Another called it a “red meat bill” because there are so many lobbyists available to take legislators out for steaks. “Everybody gets fed,” quipped Wayne Garner, a former senator turned lobbyist.

All for legislation that may take years to pass.

Gov. Nathan Deal does not support expanding gambling in Georgia and some lawmakers have been equally reluctant, especially in an election year. Religious conservatives, who Republican legislators don’t like to anger, have voiced opposition as well.

“As it relates to casinos, I think that is an issue that needs a lot more discussion, a lot more vetting,” Cagle said last week.

And, for top lawmakers, that could mean a reliable stream of campaign contributions and steaks as lawmakers take time to “vet” whether to allow casino gambling in Georgia.

MGM has pitched a $1 billion investment for downtown Atlanta that would employ more than 3,500. Other gaming interests, from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, a big player in Alabama’s gambling business, to Caesars Palace and Penn National Gaming, to the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition, have hired lobbyists to work on the legislation.

While the casino bills haven't moved, a Senate committee known for attracting big business donations approved two key measures that would create a new "division of horse racing" within the Georgia Lottery Corp. and ask voters to approve parimutuel betting statewide. They may come up for a vote in the Senate this week.

Cagle said he doesn’t know whether supporters in the Senate have the votes to get it onto the ballot, but he gives it a better chance than the casino bills because lawmakers have been working on horse-racing legislation for several years.

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, a sponsor of casino legislation, said approval of horse racing could provide a push for casino backers to get their measure through the General Assembly down the road.

“I think, in honesty, everybody expected the casino issue to take a while,” said Stephens, the chairman of the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee. “I would be stunned if we got everything we wanted this year, but I would not be surprised if we got something we wanted this year that keeps the momentum going.”

Big spenders

Like other businesses, gaming interests traditionally give big to politicians in states where they want to start up or expand.

According to Common Cause New York, gambling and horse-racing interests spent more than $59 million on lobbying and political contributions in New York in the years leading up to passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to allow up to seven new casinos in 2013.

The Georgia statehouse was abuzz last fall when Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson stopped by to have private chats with House Speaker David Ralston and Cagle. His appearance was seen as another sign that big-money casinos executives were eyeing Georgia.

Adelson has been a go-to guy for Republican candidates nationally. He dropped $20 million on former Georgia U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich during his presidential bid in 2012, and one of his top former aides told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year that he might be angling to make sure the Sands has a piece of the action.

The lobbyist hiring spree started well before Adelson visited the statehouse. Trip Martin and former Senate Republican leader Skin Edge, registered to work for horse-racing interests just before the 2015 session. MGM hired McKenna Long & Aldridge, but firm lobbyists Chuck McMullen, a former top Senate aide, and Tharon Johnson, a former top adviser to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, left and took the business with them.

Hiring sped up in the second half of 2015, as lawmakers began holding hearings on expanding gambling.

Legislators attached the name “Preservation of the HOPE” to committees because promoters say gambling revenue would provide enough money to keep the scholarship fund afloat in the future.

Meeting rooms were packed with gaming lobbyists, all eager to talk about the benefits casinos and racetracks could bring to the state. Casino executives unveiled plans for glittering gaming developments in Georgia, promising thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

While these meetings drew opponents too, they were dominated by casino boosters and horse-racing advocates. They flashed slide shows and industry studies to back their claims, outglossing the few local pastors who condemned the effort as morally bankrupt.

Horse-racing officials paid for the committee’s lunch. MGM lobbyists spent more than $900 during the second half of the year, buying coffee, lunch and dinner, and providing entertainment for lawmakers, including committee members.

By the end of August, MGM had added the McGuire Woods team, The Hudson Group, Haydon Consulting and R.B. Robinson Co., all mentioned in the AJC's annual list of top lobbyists.

The Alabama-based Poarch Band of Creek Indians registered Mathews & Maxwell in late September, former House Speaker Terry Coleman about a week later, veteran statehouse lobbyist Cindy Shepherd a few weeks after that, and another veteran lobbyist, John Clayton, two weeks into the 2016 session.

Lorenzo Creighton, the president of MGM National Harbor, registered to lobby in Georgia during the first week of the 2016 session.

“As legislation is taking shape, we want to provide input and share best practices from other states that have successfully implemented legislation to allow destination casino resorts,” he said. “It is for Georgians to decide if the destination casino resorts are a viable strategy for funding the HOPE scholarship.”

MGM and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and horse-racing interests have also been pouring money into the campaign coffers of top lawmakers.

Cagle is a likely candidate for governor in 2018 and an important guy for gaming interests to have on their side.

Reports show MGM and its employees contributed about $12,000 to his campaign and spent $1,668 on expenses for a Nov. 19 fundraiser.

In interviews last week, Cagle said while he sees the potential upside to casinos in Georgia, he didn’t think lawmakers were anywhere near ready to decide the issue.

As for the contributions, he said they play “absolutely” no role in whether he will ultimately support casino legislation.

“There are a lot of people who contribute to my campaign,” Cagle said. “But I have a responsibility to represent all the people of Georgia.”

Cagle also received contributions from the horse racing coalition ($2,500) and Poarch Band of Creeks ($1,000). He collected the money in his lieutenant governor’s campaign account, even though he won’t need the money if he runs for governor.

Lawmakers, such as state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, and Stephens, who are pushing horse-racing and casino legislation, also received big contributions from gaming interests. So did Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, and Ralston.

MGM, which contributed about $159,000 to lawmakers in the three months leading up to the 2016 session, gave $45,000 to Republican funds and $15,000 to the Democratic Party.

It even contributed to lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, who are not necessarily on board with casino gambling.

“They didn’t ask me ahead of time,” said Henson, who received $3,000 in contributions in October. “It doesn’t shock me that they want to come and talk to me about the issue and leave a positive impression when they do.

“I am not against it for religious reasons, but the economics of it all I have some questions about. It’s not like I am morally shut down on it.”

Some lawmakers are worried about the money being spent by casinos and horse-racing interests and their lobbyists.

Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, filed Senate Bill 266, co-sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, that would increase disclosure requirements on spending to influence lawmakers on gaming issues. The bill will likely go nowhere in the General Assembly.

Lawmakers are already required to disclose who gives them campaign contributions, and lobbyists are supposed to report what they spend on lunches, dinners, travel and lodging of lawmakers. However, Fort said casino and horse-racing interests could do things such as donating to community groups or a legislator’s favorite charity to influence the outcome.

“These are high-profile bills, bills that have the potential to have lobbyists spend more money than on anything else,” said Fort, who opposes expanding gaming. “My concern is that moneyed interests, people who literally have billions to spend, are going to influence indirectly, behind the scenes, and the public will never know.”

Lobbyists know that with enough time, they may get what they want.

When lobbyists pushed lawmakers to allow the sale of beer, wine and liquor in Georgia on Sundays, polls showed the public wanted the chance to vote on the issue.

But then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, a religious conservative, opposed the idea. No matter how hard lobbyists worked the issue, many Republicans were reluctant to vote on a bill when they knew, even if it passed, the governor would veto it.

Three months after Deal was sworn in to replace Perdue, a bill allowing local communities to vote on allowing Sunday sales won overwhelming final passage.

Rusty Paul, a former Republican state senator and a longtime Capitol lobbyist, said all the money and hired guns for casino and horse racing may be overkill.

“It just tells you there is too much money involved,” Paul said. “My experience is those kind of things become counterproductive.”