Georgia casino bill gets first hearing as opposition is voiced

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, has continued to make changes to Senate Bill 79, which would allow casino gambling in Georgia. The bill now calls for up to two casinos, one that could be built in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton or Gwinnett counties, and one in a county with a population of more than 180,000. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, has continued to make changes to Senate Bill 79, which would allow casino gambling in Georgia. The bill now calls for up to two casinos, one that could be built in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton or Gwinnett counties, and one in a county with a population of more than 180,000. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

The author of a plan to legalize casino gambling in Georgia received a largely positive reception from his colleagues on a Senate committee Thursday, but a room packed with Baptist preachers promised tensions to come.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, presented Senate Bill 79 to the Regulated Industries Committee. No vote was taken, and Chairman Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough, said another hearing would be scheduled "in a week or two."

Beach, making adjustments to the plan almost daily, said the latest version would allow up to two casinos, one in a county with a population of more than 650,000 — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton or Gwinnett — and one in a county with a population of more than 180,000.

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“We’re looking at a minimum of $2.45 billion investment and creation somewhere in the vicinity of 7,500 permanent jobs,” Beach said.

The casinos would still be taxed at 20 percent, and the proceeds, estimated to be in the $350 million-a-year range, would be split: 50 percent to the HOPE scholarship, 30 percent to needs-based grants for college and 20 percent for rural health care.

In the latest version of the bill, Beach has also reinserted a requirement that before a license can be awarded for a casino, voters in the county in which it would be located would have to approve. The local referendum is in addition to a statewide vote to amend the Georgia Constitution.

But the language of the county referendum caused at least one senator pause.

"I'm not sure it will tell someone who read that it's really about casino gambling or the gaming industry," said state Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon.

The ballot question, according to the latest draft of the bill, would ask: “Shall the Georgia Gaming Commission be authorized to issue a license for a destination resort to be located in (name of county or municipality)?”

Kennedy noted that the words “gambling” and “casino” were not in there. Beach assured him the language would be adjusted.

Beach was buoyed by Erik Balsbaugh, vice president of the American Gaming Association, who told senators that “gaming popularity in the United States is at an all-time high. It’s more mainstream and popular than ever before.”

Perhaps sensing the room full of Baptist preachers, Balsbaugh also said 1 in 3 casino visitors attend religious services regularly and 1 in 4 are “born again Christians,” according to a survey the industry commissioned.

But those preachers were unmoved.

“We’re concerned this is an issue of money being put over morality,” said Mike Griffin, a public affairs representative of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “That the end justifies the means. All these ornaments are being put on the Christmas tree, it’s almost like 30 pieces of silver to get everyone to buy into this.”

One more word of warning came from A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown civic organization. Robinson said his group recently conducted a study that found "casinos generate a lot of money, but they have their drawbacks."

“The revenue is generated by locals, not tourists,” he said, and the Georgia Lottery, now the only source of funds for the HOPE scholarship, could face “cannibalization” by casinos.

“The social impacts are real, and those who are close to the casino will deal most with the impact,” he said.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, however, said Atlanta competes with cities such as Chicago, Las Vegas, Nashville, New Orleans and San Diego for convention business. Each of those cities, he said, has a distinct downtown experience. Atlanta lacks such a distinction.

“We have an opportunity for a lot of people to come to Atlanta,” he said, “not through Atlanta.”

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