State Sen. Brandon Beach, the sponsor of legislation in the Senate that would allow casino gambling in Georgia, said Monday that the bill appears to be dead for the year. He said he will start traveling across the state in April, after the legislative session has concluded, to build support for the bill in 2018. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia senator says his casino bill is dead for the year

Legislation that would allow casino gambling in Georgia appears to be dead for the year, after the bill’s sponsor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he does not have the votes to get it out of committee.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, acknowledged he was at least one vote short of a majority on the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which had been set to consider Senate Bill 79 on Monday.

“I am not discouraged,” Beach said. “I will double down and plan to crisscross the state starting in April” to build support for the bill in 2018.

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, who sponsored similar legislation in the House, said despite this setback they are not giving up. The constitutional amendment that would be required to allow casinos can’t go before voters before November 2018 anyway.

“We see it as a two-year process,” Stephens said.

Social conservatives said Beach’s proclamation of the bill’s demise was clearly good news.

“This is a big win for families, for the economy and for our government,” said Mike Griffin, the public affairs director of the Georgia Baptist Missionary Board. “Part of the success comes from what I would call a ‘perfect storm’ of social conservatives and economic conservatives.”

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The Faith & Freedom Coalition of Georgia had made stopping the expansion of gambling one of its top priorities for this legislative session.

“The ABCs of casinos are addiction, bankruptcy and crime, including human trafficking and government corruption,” said David Baker, the coalition’s executive director.

While many opponents of the bill celebrated, one urged caution.

“Nothing is dead until the 40th day,” state Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, said, noting that lawmakers still have nearly 40 percent of the 40-day legislative session to go. While this Friday marks the key deadline of Crossover Day, there are ways for Beach and supporters to revive the measure should they see an opportunity.

Indeed, Stephens, the House casino sponsor, said there may be other pieces of legislation that could be amended to include the casino plan. Opponents, he joked, will surely “be watching me closely.”

Casino and entertainment giant MGM, which has invested tens of thousands of dollars into expanding gambling in Georgia, said it “has the highest respect for the thoughtful process underway in Georgia.”

“As the conversation continues, it’s important to consider the reality at hand,” MGM said in a statement. “Georgians are already gambling out of state and the benefits from that activity are all flowing to neighboring states.”

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the leading Democrat to support the idea, said the bill’s sudden death in the Senate surprised him.

“I thought for sure after the process of a study committee (last summer) with a bill that had significant economic development and a source of money for the HOPE scholarship funds it would get out of the committee,” Smyre said.

Beach is undeterred. He said he will visit local Rotary clubs, speak with education leaders, hospital administrators and anyone else who will listen to garner public backing.

Beach worked for months to craft a plan that could appease all factions. His original plan called for up to six casinos across the state and a track for horse racing.

The senator eventually pared that down to no more than two “destination resort” casinos with proceeds from a 20 percent tax going to a host of interests: HOPE scholarships, needs-based college grants, rural trauma care and rural hospitals, broadband Internet infrastructure, and raises for law enforcement.

In the end, no matter how he tried to divvy up the spoils, Beach could not pull the support he needed to get it out of committee.

“You can tell everyone, like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’ ” Beach said.

Beach’s acknowledgment of his bill’s troubles has led some gambling proponents to turn their attention to a possible tribal casino. The United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee, from Oklahoma, said this month that the tribe aimed to return to the North Georgia land it was driven from and build a gambling paradise atop it.

But Gov. Nathan Deal, who warmed to Beach’s plan this year, took a firm stance against the United Keetoowah’s proposal.

“My personal opinion is I don’t think we want that in our state,” Deal said of the tribe’s plan. “If it were to go to a federally designated Indian reservation, we lose that local control. And I’m not in favor of losing that control.”

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