People place bets on sports at the MGM Grand Race & Sports Book in Las Vegas, Aug. 25, 2017. Supporters of gambling legislation in Georgia are trying to determine the best way forward. (Bridget Bennett/The New York Times)

Gambling’s supporters change tactics at Georgia Legislature

The battle to expand gambling in Georgia is taking a different shape this year.

The two prominent lawmakers who for years have backed what had been presented as Georgia’s imminent need to have casinos have shifted their approaches, with one calling for voters to decide whether gambling should be allowed in the state at all and another pursuing pared down horse-racing legislation.

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

Backers of several gambling efforts in Georgia say they could create thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Georgia Lottery-funded education programs such as the HOPE scholarship. Many conservative groups and faith leaders oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime.

Supporters of various gambling proposals said they hope mostly-new leadership under the Gold Dome could translate into success for their efforts.

But efforts have been slow to get off the ground. In years past, both Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle — who left office earlier this month — expressed opposition to casino gambling.

A proposal to ask Georgians whether they support allowing “destination luxury casinos” in strategic parts of the state has been all but abandoned. There is little talk of resurrecting a bill that would have regulated daily fantasy sports, and no lawmakers have seized on the opportunity made by the U.S. Supreme Court last year to allow sports betting in all 50 states.

New Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan have each said they oppose casinos, but they haven’t been pressed to weigh in publicly on other forms of gambling.

That could be why bills are slow finding their way to the hopper this year, Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Bill Cowsert said. Any gambling legislation would likely go through the Athens Republican’s committee.

“We don’t know where the governor is on a lot of these things,” Cowsert said. “They could be waiting to figure that out.”

Future of gambling

House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Ron Stephens said he’s taking a step back from pushing for casino gambling this year. Instead, he said, he believes it’s time to ask Georgians how they feel about allowing any form of gambling in the state, including the highly popular lottery.

“We’ve had the lottery for more than 25 years,” the Savannah Republican said. “We’re at that point after 25 years that we need to reassess if we want to do it or we don’t want to do it.”

Since 1993, money from the Georgia Lottery has funded HOPE scholarships for hundreds of thousands of students going to the state’s public and private colleges.

Stephens said he plans to file legislation that would create a gaming commission to oversee all forms of gambling in the state and put a question on the ballot asking Georgians whether they approve of the activity. If voters say they support allowing gambling in the state, the new commission would consider what forms should be recommended and oversee whatever gets implemented.

But many conservative groups and faith leaders oppose all forms of gambling. Virginia Galloway, a lobbyist for the Faith and Freedom Coalition of Georgia, said while she’s noticed fewer gambling lobbyists roaming the halls of the Capitol, her group is prepared to oppose any efforts to expand the activity.

”We stand ready to do whatever needs to be done to ensure our state isn’t degraded in this way,” Galloway said.

The flow of money from casino supporters has also slowed in the past year.

Businesses such as MGM Resorts International donated $50,000 to a liberal political action committee in September, and gambling equipment company IGT Global Solutions gave $25,000 to the Georgia Republican Party and an additional $6,600 to Kemp.

That’s a huge drop from the 2016 session, when gaming organizations and those connected to the business plowed more than $200,000 into the campaigns of leading legislators. They also paid for a fundraiser in November 2015 for Cagle, whose duties included serving as the Senate’s president.

Stephens said he hasn’t ruled out coming back and pushing for casinos if voters say they think gambling should continue. Polls have shown that Georgia voters favor the idea.

“I haven’t made that assessment yet,” he said. “But the overarching thing to decide (about gambling) is what is and what is not to be used in the state.”

Horse racing

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Brandon Beach said he believes Georgia needs to expand its presence in the equine industry by developing a horse-racing business.

Lawmakers in past years have proposed “racino” legislation, which would allow slot machines or other gambling to take place at the racetrack in addition to horse racing.

This year, Beach said the legislation is focused specifically on horse racing in an attempt to cash in on the 80,000 horses that he says travel from Florida facilities, including Tampa Bay Downs, to Kentucky’s Keeneland Racecourse.

“We need to be in the equine industry,” the Alpharetta Republican said. “There’s more to it than racing. There’s horse farms and hay farms and breeding and auctions.”

Beach, who recently announced plans to run for the 6th Congressional District seat, said he envisions a racetrack with a mix of uses similar to the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park that would be a boon for the economy in Middle and South Georgia.

Dean Reeves, the president of the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition and owner of Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, said while there would only be races held a few weeks throughout the year, the facility would be open for other events.

“Horse racing is a full-blown industry that brings hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue and income and creates jobs,” Reeves said.

The bill would direct a percentage of the revenue to HOPE and the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

Beach, who has previously supported efforts to allow casinos in Georgia, said he plans to file the horse racing bill this week. A press conference announcing the legislation has been scheduled for Wednesday, weather permitting.

Cowsert, who was opposed to a racino, said while he hasn’t yet seen the bill, he’s now “more comfortable’ with the details he’s heard from Beach.

“They can come and make their case,” Cowsert said.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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