published Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

Gambling gets a look in conservative Georgia

  • photo
    Gamers play blackjack at Harrah's Cherokee Casino in North Carolina in this file photo.
    Photo by Stephen Miller/Asheville Citizen-Times

Poll
Should Georgia have casino gambling?

DORIE TURNER, Associated Press

SHANNON McCAFFREY, Associated Press

ATLANTA — Strong support around Georgia in favor of Sunday alcohol sales is energizing some advocates who say the political climate in the state could finally be ripe to expand gambling interests as governments search for fresh revenue sources.

The state House is looking at betting on horse racing. A report commissioned by the state lottery found that casinos at key locations across the state could generate nearly $1 billion a year.

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill earlier this year that dealt with coin-operated gaming machines but said he would be open to another bill that addressed concerns he had about illegal gambling.

Gambling measures will still be a tough sell in a Republican-led, Bible Belt state. But the mere fact that they are being talked about — not dismissed as a dead on arrival — is a signal to some that that times have changed.

"It's being discussed openly in political and legislative circles, more than I've ever heard," said Tom Perdue, a veteran Georgia Republican strategist.

Perdue said the Sunday sales vote have some lawmakers who have reflexively opposed gambling measures taking a second look.

"They are related," Perdue said. "If not sisters, then definitely cousins."

In Sunday sales votes that took place in counties and cities around the state earlier this month, 105 of the 127 referendums on the ballot passed, according to the Georgia Food Industry Association. The measures flew through without any organized opposition, which has encouraged gambling proponents.

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, said the governor remains opposed to the expansion of gambling.

But Deal's opposition might not kill efforts to bring gambling to Georgia.

Multiple groups have pushed for expanding the state's gaming industry after the lottery started in 1992. Advocates say the state is losing money to neighboring states with more options for players.

One group, the HOPE 20/20 Coalition, is pushing for installing video lottery terminals across the state, a move that would not require a constitutional amendment because state law doesn't specifically ban the machines. Experts estimate the state has between 10,000 and 20,000 illegal video gambling machines already in operation — with profits of about $200,000 each week.

The coalition's aim is to help restore the HOPE scholarship and state's prekindergarten programs back to full funding. The legislature made massive cuts to both programs this year, doing away with full scholarships for all but the state's highest performing students and slashing 20 days out of the pre-k calendar.

The HOPE program also no longer pays for books or campus fees. That means students must shell out thousands more each year to attend college in Georgia.

Deal said the cuts were necessary to prevent the programs from going bankrupt after demand for the scholarships and pre-k outpaced lottery sales.

Georgia lottery board chairman Jimmy Braswell has said the lottery-commissioned study on casinos was meant to "bring some clarity to" how much gaming could raise for the state. The study found that a casino in just downtown Atlanta could bring in nearly $800 million a year if it had 5,000 machines.

"The study shows a potential for a large amount of money, however, there are other social and economic issues to consider," Braswell said in a statement when the study was released in October.

State Rep. Harry Geisinger, a Roswell Republican, is pushing a constitutional amendment that would allow pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in the state. It would need to pass each chamber of the state Legislature by a two-thirds majority and would also need approval by voters.

But it would not need the governor's signature.

Under Geisinger's resolution, money from the horse racing would be poured into the cash-strapped coffers of the HOPE scholarship, pre-k and trauma care.

"Without raising taxes," Geisinger notes. "This would have a huge benefit for Georgia."

Geisinger has been pushing the horse racing initiative for years and says it has bipartisan backing. This year, House Speaker David Ralston gave his blessing to a study committee to give the issue a closer look.

Geisinger said the panel traveled to Lexington, Ky. — on their own dime — to study its impact there. And on Nov. 17, former Breeders' Cup board Chairman Bill Farish and Nick Nicholson, president and CEO of Kentucky's Keeneland Association, trekked to Georgia to meet privately with a group of state legislators and Deal.

In addition to changing attitudes, gambling could get a boost from the sluggish economy. While Georgia's tax receipts have been improving they still lag significantly behind pre-recessionary levels.

Republicans who control both chambers of the state Legislature as well as the governor's mansion are loathe to raise taxes. Gambling revenues would provide a fresh new revenue stream.

"There's not a question that we're in a bad ditch and we need something to jumpstart Atlanta, to jumpstart Georgia," said developer Hal Barry, who's pushing for horse racing in the state.

"When the lottery was voted in, everybody questioned the lottery, and what happened?" he said. "This is something that can help the state of Georgia in a big way."

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