Governor on casinos in Georgia: ‘Don’t bet on it’

Want to wager whether Georgia will legalize casino gambling? Better heed these new odds from Gov. Nathan Deal:

“Don’t bet on it.”

Deal plans to oppose the gambling push now underway at the state Capitol, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exclusively that he expects to take an active role against the effort. It’s the first time the governor has said as much — in previous comments, he indicated he would stand back despite a personal opposition to the idea.

“I will make my position very clear to the members of the General Assembly,” Deal told the AJC. “And I would hope they would recognize that we have so many good things going for us in the state of Georgia. This is not something I view as positive. I do not think it improves the quality of life for our citizens. And in my opinion it has very little redeeming value.”

Deal left open the possibility he would change his mind, but only if the industry agreed to a significantly higher tax rate than the 12 percent currently proposed. One might call that challenge a road map to see whether the industry is serious in its pursuit.

“If they’re willing to put anywhere from 24 to 35 percent of their gross revenue into education … as the (Georgia Lottery) does, that will be a totally different proposition,” Deal said. “I don’t think we’re going to see any of them take us up on the offer.”

Deal’s public swat against deep-pocketed casino companies already aligning under the Gold Dome took many by surprise. Up until now, public discourse had been dominated by proponents — including horse-racing advocates who want approval for parimutuel betting.

It seems also to be a calculated move to slow the industry’s momentum here, where similar proposals over the years have withered under pressure from religious conservatives. That bloc is not as powerful as it once was at the Capitol, though. And casino supporters point to the success a few years ago of legislation allowing Sunday alcohol sales at stores as a template for their cause.

As with the Sunday sales effort, the current gambling proposal is twofold. One would put a constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling before Georgia voters as early as 2016. The other involves “enabling” legislation — the legal nuts and bolts, in essence, of how it would work.

The casino industry has already hired more than a dozen lobbyists to help make its case. Study committees of both the state House and Senate began hearings last month that included tantalizing testimony of the potential effect of legalized gambling. One estimate suggests at least an additional $280 million annually in tax revenue.

The money would be used to boost the state’s premier education programs, including the HOPE scholarship for college students and early childhood pre-k classes.

Lawmakers are looking for more cash as HOPE and pre-k programs struggle financially to keep up with demand despite record profits from the state lottery that funds them. State law encourages the lottery to return about 35 percent of ticket sales to education programs, although that is not a mandate and the lottery’s current return rate is about 25 percent.

Lorenzo Creighton, the president and chief operating officer for MGM National Harbor in Maryland, said in a statement Friday that the company “has the highest respect for the thoughtful process taking place in Georgia. It is ultimately a decision for Georgians.”

Among the biggest proposed casinos already on the table is one from MGM Resorts International, whose CEO and president, Jim Murren, pitched a $1 billion investment for downtown Atlanta that would employ more than 3,500.

There is no doubt, however, that Deal’s comments carry weight.

“I don’t know that there’s ever been an issue in my nine years as a legislator that everybody didn’t pay attention to what the governor said,” said state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, chairman of the House study committee looking into the issue. Lawmakers next meet Nov. 2 to hold more hearings, and Ramsey has floated the idea that they may present a “fact-finding” report without any kind of recommendation about what to do when the next legislative session starts in January.

Deal’s more aggressive stance may have been set off by an unannounced visit last month to Georgia by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Deal was out of town, but the billionaire met with House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

Adelson is a major GOP benefactor who has poured tens of millions of dollars into Republican presidential campaigns, and he met last year with Deal in the heat of a re-election battle. Records show Adelson did not contribute to Deal’s campaign. The governor said at that meeting the two talked about calls to expand gambling in Georgia. Deal told him he did not favor casinos in the state.

“And his comment back to me was that he didn’t, either, and that he would oppose any effort in our state,” Deal said. “Obviously something has changed.”