PG A.M.: Lawmakers, casino operators betting big to legalize gambling

Your daily jolt of news and analysis from the AJC politics team
State Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Gwinnett, awaits voting results over Senate Bill 386, a sports betting bill he sponsored, at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

State Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Gwinnett, awaits voting results over Senate Bill 386, a sports betting bill he sponsored, at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Welcome to another Groundhog Day, when two near-simultaneous developments in Atlanta represent the ambitious outlook — and familiar real-world hurdles — facing advocates behind the latest push to legalize gambling.

Under the Gold Dome, the Georgia Senate adopted a bill to allow sports betting, but not before they also voted to tie the measure to a constitutional amendment that has been the downfall of earlier efforts.

And around the same time in a nearby law office, a handful of casino companies met with high-powered Nelson Mullins lawyers to pitch a long-term dream of bringing gambling complexes to Georgia.

Let’s start with the present-day complications. Our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu reported Thursday that the bipartisan sports betting bill, sponsored by Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Gwinnett, and backed by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, passed the Senate by a 35-15 vote.

But 34 senators also voted to require a constitutional amendment to make it happen, meaning it would need a two-thirds vote in the Legislature — and approval by a majority of voters — to take effect. Supporters for years have failed to meet the two-thirds threshold, which equates to 38 votes in the Senate and 120 in the House.

State senators take a hand vote on an amendment to sports betting Senate Bill 386 in the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, February 1, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Meanwhile, the AJC’s Zach Hansen caught up with executives from Bally’s Corp., Hard Rock International and Wynn Resorts as they sold a vision of the potential payout that taxpayers could receive if they roll the dice on brick-and-mortar casinos.

“We create our own demand,” said Marcus Glover, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Bally’s. “No business in the market does that the way casino resorts do.”

The casino advocates pointed to gambling expansions in other states as a model, specifically Wynn’s $2.6 billion Encore Boston Harbor complex that opened in 2019.

“It’s intended to be a family resort unlike some of the properties in (Las) Vegas where things operate around the casino floor,” said Amy Odom, a Wynn representative.

She added that the resort, which employs thousands of workers, did not require property tax incentives unlike many of Georgia’s largest employment projects.

So where do things stand now? Barring any significant changes, gambling backers must confront the same dilemma they’ve always faced — the challenge of wrangling enough bipartisan support to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

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State Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Catalula, sponsor of Senate Bill 63, regarding bonds and bails, speaks on the bill in the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta on Feb. 1, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

LEGISLATION ON THE MOVE. The sports betting bill wasn’t the only measure lawmakers advanced Thursday as they closed out another week of the 2024 session. In other action:

  • State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, dropped Senate Bill 442, a measure to eliminate Certificate of Need requirements, also known as CON, for new hospitals in counties with populations of fewer than 35,000. That would include Butts County, the home of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who last year pushed to eliminate CON requirements in the state for counties of fewer than 50,000. That effort failed. CON regulations limit the ability of private companies to open health care facilities that would compete with public hospitals.
  • The Senate passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, to add dozens of lower-level offenses to the list of crimes that will require cash bail to be released from custody after arrest. The AJC’s Maya T. Prabhu reports the approach is contrary to the state’s previous efforts to steer nonviolent offenders away from jails and prisons.
  • The House Judiciary Committee passed a measure to give Georgia judges a big salary boost. Our James Salzer reports the House bill would raise the base pay of state Supreme Court justices from $186,112 a year to $223,400, along with other pay hikes. It’s an effort to remain at least partially competitive with the big law firm salaries judges could make in the private sector.

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The Georgia State Capitol. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

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Credit: Casey Sykes

UNDER THE GOLD DOME:

  • The House and Senate are out of session today, returning for business on Tuesday.
  • The funeral of the late state Rep. Richard Smith is Monday. The Columbus Republican and House Rules Committee chairman died Monday at age 78.

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U.S. Lt Col (Ret) Michael Busteed salutes during his remarks during a ceremony to honor the memory of Breonna Moffett, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, at Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, Ga. Moffitt joined the Army Reserve in 2019 after graduating from high school. (Stephen B. Morton for the AJC)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

FINAL TRIP HOME. The families of the three Georgia-based Army reservists killed over the weekend during a drone attack in Jordan will be on site at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as their loved ones’ remains are returned to U.S. soil.

President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter will meet with the families there as they take the first step in laying the soldiers to rest, a solemn process formally known as the dignified transfer of remains. Two of the soldiers lived in Carter’s district along the Georgia coast.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Charles Q. Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will also be in attendance.

From left to right, Spc. Kennedy Sanders, Sgt. William Jerome Rivers and Spc. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett. The three U.S. Army Reserve soldiers from Georgia were killed by a drone strike Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, on their base in Jordan near the Syrian border. (Shawn Sanders and U.S. Army via AP)

Credit: U.S. Army via AP

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Credit: U.S. Army via AP

U.S. Army Reservist Sgts. Breonna Moffett, 23, Kennedy Ladon Sanders, 24, and William Jerome Rivers, 46, were killed Sunday near the Syrian border. Austin said during a news conference Thursday that there would be a multilayered response from the United States, though he did not elaborate.

Biden has spoken to some of the fallen soldiers’ family members by phone, but he will now meet them privately in person before the public dignified remains transfer on base. Biden posthumously granted Moffett and Sanders their promotions to sergeant.

More than 40 troops were wounded in the same attack. At least three are part of the same Army Reserve company assigned to Fort Moore in Columbus as the three who were killed.

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U.S. Rep. Mike Collins’ official congressional account on X was temporarily suspended Thursday. Collins is a Republican from Jackson, Ga. (Hyosub Shin/hyosub.shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

SOCIAL MEDIA SHUTDOWN. U.S. Rep. Mike Collins’ official congressional account on X was temporarily suspended Thursday after he made a post that was interpreted as wishing for the death of a migrant accused of attacking two New York police officers.

Collins, R-Jackson, was responding to a photo circulating of an undocumented migrant who, after being arrested and charged with taking part in the attack, flipped off reporters upon his release from custody, according to Mediaite.

Collins shared a post from fellow Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, R-New York, who said the migrant in the photo should be sent away. The Georgian then added commentary of his own: “Or we could buy him a ticket on Pinochet Air for a free helicopter ride back.”

That was a reference to Augusto Pinochet, a military officer and de facto dictator in Chile for nearly two decades. Pinochet was known for punishing his enemies and critics by throwing them out of helicopters mid-flight.

Collins’ post was flagged as violating X’s policies, and his account was taken down for a few hours.

Collins, a first-term lawmaker, earned a reputation during the House speaker chaos in October for using his presence on X to add levity and humor to the stressful situation. But more recently, he has leaned into far-right culture war topics like disapproval of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and concern about the influx of migrants at the border.

After his official account was suspended Thursday, Collins used his personal account to tweet a request that Elon Musk help get it restored. It was a few hours later.

“I’m back,” he wrote Thursday night. “Never back down. Never surrender.”

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VOTING MACHINE VERDICT. With early voting in the first election of 2024 to start in just 17 days, a federal judge is deciding whether Georgia’s touchscreen ballot machines create an unconstitutional danger to voting rights.

A 17-day trial questioning the security of Georgia’s Dominion voting machines ended Thursday, the AJC’s Mark Niesse reported. U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg didn’t give an indication of when or how she would rule.

Poll workers prepare voting machines before the polls opened on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, at the Park Tavern in Atlanta. (John Spink/john.spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

Statistics from the 2022 midterm election show 94% of Georgia voters cast ballots using the machines either during early voting or on election day.

Georgia’s presidential primary is March 12.

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The relationship between Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (center) and special prosecutor Nathan Wade (right) is under scrutiny. (Hyosub Shin/hyosub.shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

LISTEN UP. The “Politically Georgia” radio show team was on Capitol Hill for a Thursday morning meeting with members of Congress, staff, and students from the applied politics program of the University of Georgia. So instead of a live broadcast, we shared an encore episode of our conversation with Bill Nigut and Tia Mitchell, along with law professors Anthony Michael Kreis and Fred Smith, discussing the legal implications, or lack thereof, of the relationship between Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and special prosecutor Nathan Wade.

Listen at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. And listen to Thursday’s show live at 10 a.m. on WABE 90.1 FM, at AJC.com and at WABE.org.

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President Joe Biden salutes after disembarking Marine One upon arrival at Delaware Air National Guard Base in New Castle, Del., late Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

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Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

TODAY IN WASHINGTON:

  • President Joe Biden attends the dignified transfer of remains for the three Georgia-based Army reservists killed in Jordan.
  • The U.S. House and Senate are done for the week.

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Vice President Kamala Harris visit Savannah on Tuesday. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

BATTLEGROUND 2024. Vice President Kamala Harris has announced she’ll be back in Georgia next week. She’ll visit Savannah on Tuesday for the latest stop on a nationwide tour to protest Republican-passed restrictions on abortion rights.

A source tells us Harris could stay in the state and appear in a second city on Wednesday.

The trip is Harris’ 11th Georgia visit as VP and should be considered the start of Democrats’ intense and concerted efforts to make abortion a top issue for more voters in 2024.

In a media advisory, Harris’ office noted that “extremists in states like Georgia” have pushed for abortion bans, including the state’s six-week ban. A Quinnipiac poll this week showed President Joe Biden with a 22-point advantage among female voters over former President Donald Trump, although abortion was the top issue for just 7% of those voters.

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Ellie Johnson is a 115-pound Great Pyrenees from Smyrna. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

DOG OF THE DAY. Most five year-olds don’t weigh 115 pounds. But most five-year-olds are not Ellie Johnson.

Ellie is a Great Pyrenees pup and lives in Smyrna, where she calls Rebecca and Mark Johnson her people. Along with producing copious amounts of fur, she also spends her time protecting the home from rogue delivery drivers. But a reliable source tells us there’s nothing to worry about, Mr. Amazon. Ellie is all bark, no bite, and, of course, our Dog of the Day.

Send us your dogs of any political persuasion and location, and cats on a cat-by-cat basis, to patricia.murphy@ajc.com, or DM us at @MurphyAJC.

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AS ALWAYS, Politically Georgia readers are some of our favorite tipsters. Send your best scoop, gossip and insider info to greg.bluestein@ajc.com, tia.mitchell@ajc.com, patricia.murphy@ajc.com, and adam.vanbrimmer@ajc.co