Kempner: ‘Welcome to Atlanta: We’ve got craps!’

The current Georgia legislation allowing two casinos — one in metro Atlanta — would require private investment of at least $2 billion. Here, the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino resort in Maryland is shown in an artist’s rendering. Casinos already operate in 42 states.
The current Georgia legislation allowing two casinos — one in metro Atlanta — would require private investment of at least $2 billion. Here, the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino resort in Maryland is shown in an artist’s rendering. Casinos already operate in 42 states.

Will Georgia legislators make a sucker bet on casinos?

Heard the one about putting a casino at the Atlanta airport?

I can imagine the sign at our front door to the world. “Welcome to Atlanta: We’ve got craps!”

That reminds me of the mood set at the Las Vegas airport, where they have slot machines right at the gates, just in case you can’t imagine making it to the baggage carousel before the urge to gamble consumes you.

Of course, all this is a flight of fancy at the moment because casinos are illegal in Georgia.

But such talk fits with the effort by the casino industry and its allies to make it appear that big gambling houses are inevitable in our state — whether it’s on the coast, in downtown Atlanta or even at the world’s busiest airport.

Legislators are pushing new bills that would boost money for education by allowing gaming "destination resorts," the latest euphemism for consumer money pits formerly known as "casinos." (The posh destination resort Sea Island is probably choking on its Japanese scallops topped with German caviar right about now.) Crucially, Gov. Deal sounds less resistant these days to the places formerly known as casinos, which would still need voter approval.

I’m told that everyone has a price.

If so, it sure looks like state legislators are preparing to put a cheap one on us, like we’re bananas that have already gone mushy.

Far below average

The 20 percent gaming tax proposed in the Georgia legislation falls far below the national average of nearly 30 percent, according to a chart by the American Gaming Association.

What’s particularly odd is that Georgia would choose to go low though it has the equivalent of ocean-front property.

Casinos already operate in 42 states and are running out of virgin geography in the U.S. close to big metro areas.

“There aren’t many big prizes left in this country for casino expansion, but Georgia and more specifically, the Atlanta area, is one of them,” said Joe Weinert, executive vice president at Spectrum Gaming Group, which consults for both casinos and governments.

The current Georgia legislation would require one of two casinos in the state to be located in metro Atlanta and involve a private investment of at least $2 billion, including a 1,000-plus-room hotel.

That would make it the priciest in the nation, outside of Las Vegas and one in Atlantic City, Weinert said. An investment that large wouldn’t work with an extra high rate of taxes going to the state, he told me. (A number of states set their effective rates at well over 40 percent.)

Casinos generate a lot of money, he said. “States need to look to maximize the economic benefits and minimize the social impacts.”

But State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, didn’t voice the same kind of nuanced view when I spoke to him. He’s one of the main sponsors of the casino legislation.

“First off, this is going to be a destination resort,” he corrected me, with less than half the money coming from gaming.

All good, no bad?

I asked him to tell me about the best positives and worst negatives he expects from casi… sorry, “resorts” coming to our state. He rattled off a lot of nice stuff: more revenue for the HOPE programs before they face a potential shortfall, creating scholarships for needy students, attracting thousands of jobs, boosting our convention business and bringing more entertainment to the state, all without a tax increase (except for the one on gaming operations).

I asked him again about any potential negatives, since he volunteered not one.

“I don’t see a lot of negatives when you have a high-end destination resort,” he told me.

Crime shouldn’t be a big issue, he said.

He asserted confidently that most of the money spent at these non-c-word places will be from out-of-staters, not Georgians. And Georgians who now spend money in casinos elsewhere, like North Carolina, will instead put that money into our own state, Beach said.

But he assured me that putting new casinos closer to millions of Georgians will have no meaningful impact on how much money they gamble overall.

And what about worry that we are paving the way for some people to gamble away their life savings?

“I think they are going to gamble what they can afford to gamble,” he said.

Yeah, he said all that.

I asked the state senator for any case studies that he was basing these conclusions on. He offered none.

By the way, he also told me that a 20 percent tax rate is reasonable because it will ensure operators have enough money to regularly reinvest in their properties, which he fears they won’t do in many other states.

I don’t know why gaming businesses would volunteer to invest billions here and then let that investment fall apart over time. But just in case, how about this fix: add a requirement for a certain minimum upkeep investment and see if any casinos take the deal.

Suckering our neighbors

Despite my general free market sensibilities and the acknowledgement that we already are in the gambling business with the Georgia Lottery, I hope the push to allow casinos in Georgia miraculously goes away.

Because there’s no doubt that people around us who we love are going to get hurt by it.

Fueling addictions – whether its meth or gambling – comes with a cost. Anyone who has heard of people blowing paychecks knows that.

Some of us will be just fine, maybe even better off with extra education dollars. But we’ll do it by allowing the suckering of people around us. It’s an ugly business.

Think of this as our coming gambling addiction. Once we open the door, we won’t be closing it again, so we better be clear-eyed about what comes along with the flashy lights.

As I read in a little brochure by the American Gaming Association, “the odds always favor the house.”

The more you play casino games, the more you should expect to lose.

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