Legislation to expand gambling in Georgia clears House panel

AJC photo

AJC photo

After nearly a year of study, a House panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would ask Georgians whether they think the state should expand gambling.

House Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, said that after years of debate in the Legislature about the possibility of expanding gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery, it was time voters got to have their say.

“We only put it on the ballot for the people who make their choice,” Powell said. “If they’re in favor, so be it. If they’re not in favor, so be it. It’s our duty to put it out there for them.”

The committee approved two amended pieces of legislation.

House Resolution 378 would ask voters whether they believed the Georgia Constitution should be amended to allow pari-mutuel betting, casino gambling and sports betting, and establish an independent gaming commission to oversee the industry. House Bill 570 aims to regulate gambling if the referendum passes.

Only two members voted against the legislation, and they said they believe the proposals are fair.

"I have every confidence in this committee and in this legislative body that we will put the necessary guardrails around this measure to at least help the HOPE scholarship moving forward," state Rep. Bruce Williamson, a Monroe Republican, said before voting against the legislation.

According to the proposed legislation, money generated by sports betting through the Georgia Lottery would be dedicated to the HOPE scholarship, while revenue from nonlottery-run sports betting, casinos and horse racing would be committed to health care and health insurance costs.

Powell stressed that HB 570 was a draft of what regulations could look like — including outlining licensing costs, directing money to resources to address gambling addiction, and stipulating casinos or racetracks must be multiuse properties that offer things such as dining, hotels or convention space.

“The enabling legislation is for discussion purposes — to put it out there for the people of Georgia to see that what we’re talking about is resort destination casinos, highly controlled economic development,” he said. “And there will be numerous changes made.”

While the issue has been debated for years, supporters this year are energized by a call last year from Gov. Brian Kemp to cut state spending — making them think this time lawmakers will get behind the premise that expanding gambling will increase state revenue.

Adding to that is House Speaker David Ralston's creation of a special committee last summer that spent several months studying gambling and holding hearings across the state, leading some to believe he'll allow the legislation to be debated on the chamber floor. Thursday is Crossover Day, the deadline for legislation to typically move from one chamber to another and have a chance of becoming law this year.

Supporters believe an expansion of the gambling industry could bring thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Georgia Lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. Conservative groups and religious organizations oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime.

“The people do have a right. They have a right to vote, they have a responsibility according to the Constitution,” said Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “But the legislators have a responsibility. And that responsibility is to be the gatekeeper on what is before the people by way of a constitutional amendment.”

Adding horse racing or casino gambling would require Georgians to approve a constitutional amendment. And the Legislature’s lawyers have encouraged lawmakers to pursue a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting if they want that.

Getting a constitutional amendment through the General Assembly requires two-thirds of each body to approve the measure — meaning 120 state representatives and 37 senators would have to vote yes to pass the legislation.

During three days of testimony last year, representatives from companies and organizations such as MGM Resorts, Wynn Development and the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition touted successful gaming operations in other states. Those businesses hired at least 30 lobbyists at the Capitol to push their agenda.

And polls have shown that most Georgians want to expand gambling.

A January poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 64% of Georgians surveyed supported casino gambling. That's up from 56% of those surveyed in 2017, the last time the AJC questioned voters about casinos.

And 57% of respondents said they back legalized betting on professional sporting events, according to the AJC poll.

"This is an opportunity for economic progress in Georgia," said state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. "Let's do what the vast majority of Georgians are asking for: 'give us the right to vote.' If they say no, (then we'll) go home. In a democracy, we give people the opportunity to make the decision"