Narrow path offers opening for casino gambling in Georgia

Gov. Nathan Deal, long opposed to gambling’s expansion in Georgia, made a surprising policy shift Monday that could one day clear the way for the first casinos in Atlanta.

In an interview, the Republican maintained his opposition to casino-style gambling but said he may not block the legislation if a majority of Georgia voters first approve it.

It was an abrupt change from his previous — and adamant — opposition to casino gambling that scuttled earlier proposals to build video lottery terminal outlets in downtown Atlanta or mixed-use gaming developments in the suburbs. In each of those instances, Deal or his aides staunchly maintained that he would oppose the expansion of gambling.

That all changed Monday, when he hedged for the first time. He said he still opposes gambling because it “doesn’t offer benefits that outweigh the negatives,” but he gave casino supporters a new route to legalize that type of gambling in Georgia.

It comes as supporters of casino-style gambling escalate a behind-the-scenes push for a constitutional amendment next year that would allow cities and counties to decide whether to host casinos. MGM, which has pitched a $1 billion resort for downtown Atlanta, has already scouted potential sites. So has a group of rival gambling outfits.

Deal’s support — whether it be tacit or explicit — is crucial. While the governor would have no say in the constitutional amendment that would legalize gambling — that requires a two-thirds legislative vote and support from a majority of voters in a ballot referendum — he would have to OK the enabling legislation that would spell out how casinos would be operated.

The governor said if the constitutional amendment receives popular support, he would be hard-pressed to veto it. But he would also be wary of signing it, giving his long-standing opposition to the idea. That’s where a third option — one that has gone largely unused in recent Georgia history — comes into play.

The governor has 40 days to sign or veto a bill after the legislative session is gaveled to an end. But if he chooses to take no action on a proposal during that window, it automatically becomes law after the 40 days are up.

“I don’t have to sign anything for it to become law,” Deal said with a smile.

Deal’s stance aside, daunting hurdles remain in securing enough legislative support. Several Republican legislators, including state Sens. Judson Hill and Tommie Williams, have tied gambling to increased crime and other social ills. Hill, for one, has said lawmakers should focus instead on cutting spending.

Gambling advocates, meanwhile, depict casinos as an immediate way to boost Georgia Lottery-funded programs such as the HOPE scholarship that have cut rewards amid increasing demand.

State Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican who sponsored the constitutional amendment, said the debate over gambling was settled decades ago when voters approved the Georgia Lottery.

“The question is not about casinos,” he said. “It’s about the HOPE scholarship and HOPE grants and tourism.”