State Rep. Ron Stephens, a Republican from Savannah, says this will be the year legalized gambling in Georgia takes a great leap forward – or bites the dust for good.
Stephens and other state lawmakers are hoping to put the question to Georgia’s voters and let them decide whether to permit casinos, horse racing and sports betting. Through an amendment to the state constitution, they would get an all or nothing proposition to either expand Georgia’s gambling options, or stick with the state’s lottery as the sole legal gambling game.
“I think a lot of folks have realized it’s time to either poop or get off the pot, as they say,” Stephens said Monday. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen this year.”
Stephens co-chairs a House study committee that kicks off three days of hearings this week to consider the pros and cons of casinos, horse racing and sports betting. Republican lawmakers express more support lately for a vote on gambling to raise money for education, new state agency budget cuts or even Medicaid expansion.
Representatives from eight casino companies are expected to speak at Tuesday’s hearing, as are elected officials from Massachusetts where three new casinos opened in recent years. Horse racing is also on the agenda this week, with remarks from Kentucky’s Senate majority leader, Damon Thayer.
Stephens has pushed several bills permitting casinos in recent years without much movement. He said it will be a “very heavy lift” to get the two-thirds vote needed in the Georgia General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. But he said he expects enough support will materialize when the Legislature convenes in January.
“It feels better than it has in the past two-and-a-half years I’ve been talking about it,” said Stephens, who co-chairs the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee.
Stephens and supporters are pitching new gambling revenues as a lifeline for the HOPE Scholarship, which officials report is experiencing rising costs. State Rep. Alan Powell, a study committee co-chair who heads up the House Regulated Industries committee, said he wants money from new forms of gambling to pay for health care initiatives that might include Medicaid expansion, a statewide insurance plan or doctor residencies at rural hospitals.
“If the people decide they want to legalize more gambling, then I think the benefit needs to go to all Georgians and not just a certain segment,” said Powell, a Hartwell Republican.
Gambling is still likely a tough sell in Georgia due to strong opposition from evangelical Christians who make up a large portion of the state’s conservative voter base, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. But the political landscape is shifting, he said.
State budget cuts Gov. Brian Kemp ordered in August are fresh on the minds of lawmakers, as favored mental health, criminal justice and rural medical programs are planned to shrink. Those reductions paired with recession jitters might persuade lawmakers to greenlight a gambling vote, Bullock said.
Opponents of legalized gambling are aware of more concerted effort by lawmakers to get gambling proposals out of the starting gate this time around. The gaming industry and its lobbyists are marshalling force. A Senate study committee focused on gambling has convened as well.
“I think there’s definitely appearing to be a more concerted effort,” said Mike Griffin, the public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “Two-thirds is a high hurdle on any piece of legislation, and there’s no doubt that this is industry-driven.”
The stakes feel higher this time, with two committees in the Legislatures looking at gambling simultaneously, said Allen Vella, president and CEO of Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, who also heads up the Georgia Arts and Culture Venues Coalition. The prospect of casinos opening large venues with competitive advantages over smaller theaters and other entertainment venues makes him nervous.
“It gives us reason to be concerned because there seems to be a certain amount of interest in this legislation,” Vella said Monday.
State Rep. Brett Harrell, a Snellville Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said the hearings this week will merely assess the economic potential of gambling and other new industries that require legislative action to do business in Georgia. The committee will also consider the economic benefits of medical cannabis and launching the proposed Camden Spaceport facility in southeast Georgia.
“We’re not going to be at this committee saying should Georgia do or not do any of these things,” Harrell said Monday, “but what would this industry bring to the state if it were permitted.”