Advocates of legalized casino gaming in Georgia face long odds, but they’ll keep pushing for reforms.
Georgia’s state Rep. Ron Stephens latest move to put a referendum before Georgia voters to legalize casino gambling in major sites in the state hit a brick a wall. The committee hearing was set for “Crossover Day”, the last day proposed bills could pass from one chamber to the next and have a clear path to become law. That leaves Stephens and his supporters with a lot to ponder regarding their effort.
“We’ll try again. There’s still a lot of controversial [bills in the state legislature]. It was one of those things that came down to maybe it wasn’t just the right time. But the bottom line is we can’t walk away from it,” Stephens stated.
Stephens has always been championing the legalization of casino gaming in Georgia for the past few years. The Republican, whose South Georgia district covers parts of Savannah, is also the architect of Georgia’s film tax credit that has led to the sate becoming Hollywood’s popular filming destination.
In 2018, Stephens and his colleagues floated the idea of a bill that will legalize casino gambling at some Georgia mega-sites, including one at College Park in Metro Atlanta. However, they changed strategy not long ago and rather pushed for a statewide referendum, leaving the burden of legalizing casino gambling in the hands of Georgia voters.
Speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gov. Brian Kemp, a strong opponent to legalized casino gambling, made it clear that he would not veto such a move, permitting for a vote in 2020. Stephens affirmed that next year’s game plan is to push for a referendum in 2020 to legalize casino gaming. If successful, a gaming commission will be created to govern the licensing of his so-called “destination resorts” across the state.
The move for a referendum has a serious possibility for casino backers given the resistance to casino gaming in Georgia has declined over the years. According to an AJC Poll conducted in 2017, 69 percent of registered voters in Georgia support casino gambling. Another poll conducted in early February by Virginia-based Public Opinion Strategies found that 85 percent of people backed the idea of legalizing gaming through voting.
“The struggles in a given year are not surprising,” said Charles Bullock – Professor of Political Science, University of Georgia. “This is still in some ways a conservative state, a religious state.”
Even so, the lottery’s implementation in 1992, which established the HOPE program funding various education initiatives, such as covering partial or full tuition expenses for in-state students in higher learning institutions has become indispensable. Furthermore, HOPE is a key consideration of why Stephen is pushing for casino gambling legalization.
“I want us to have a vote,” said Stephens. “Either you’re for this or you’re against it. You can’t be for HOPE scholarships and opposed to gambling. They are inextricably linked.”
Recent research found that the program, which has contributed more than $9B to education funding since its inception owing to the lottery, could come up short on cash by 2028, thus the need for a plan B.
Backers of casino gaming claim proceeds from those operations may be the sole approach to save the program.
“They seem to believe if you can get the licensing and get it here, it will pay off handsomely,” Bullock said.
For a host of Georgia landowners who have been actively pushing their plots to casino operators, that big payday is yet to come. And despite the fact that the resolution suffered a major blow this year, the interest among casino operators persists, according to City Commercial Real Estate founder Rick Lackey.
Lackey, Atlanta’s top real estate broker, was designated last year by some property owners to market their properties to casino operators with high expectations of gambling legalization. The actual sites include:
300 acres at Airport City, next to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
About 500 acres off I-85 along Lake Hartwell, North Georgia.
320-acre parcel 10 miles from Downtown Savannah.
Around 300 acres stretching from the Great Wolf Lodge Resort indoor water park in LaGrange, owned by the Selig family and Hodges Ward Elliot CEO William Hodges.
The commercial real estate professional has since seized other listing agreements, including for 104 acres off I-20 in Bremen close to the Alabama outskirt, and large parcels off I-95 at the Georgia-Florida border.
“We have numerous casino operators looking at sites around the state right now and some that have entered negotiations to (auction) the sites,” Lackey maintained. “They all know the current political circumstances.”
Hitherto there’s one major casino operator who has proclaimed their interest to Bisnow Media. “If the opportunity presents itself, we would certainly be interested in pursuing potential gaming sites in the state of Georgia,” Landry’s Vice President of Gaming Operations Gerry Del Prete wrote in an email, though he didn’t point out the sites.
Landry’s runs the Golden Nugget Hotels and Casinos with locations in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nevada, Atlantic City, New Jersey, Mississippi, Biloxi and Lake Charles, Louisiana.
“This is 2019, and the vote will be 2020. I don’t think it matters [that it failed this year],” Lackey said. “It should be much easier the next time around. I don’t want to come off like a political expert because I’m not, but it’s like Sunday liquor sales. It’s going to happen.”
As it stands, state Rep. Ron Stephens isn’t going to give up on the measure that would legalize gaming in Georgia.
“We’re going to take a deep breath and come back and look at it some over the interim,” he said, adding: “We want to keep the discussion going but we thought today was probably not the appropriate time to do that.”
“We’ve got a whole lot of venues out here in Georgia that may have only one or two events per year, and they’d like to add some of these tourism products”, such as gambling.
Stephens also the backing of state Sen. Josh McKoon, who termed the last minute hearing on Crossover Day as “gross abuse” of the legislative system. “We will continue to fight for this no matter what,” he told AJC’s Michelle Baruchman, adding, “But the people of Georgia deserve a better process than what they are being given by House leadership today.”
Whether the push for the people’s vote will achieve the goal or not, Stephens and co. will have to wait till next year.
A version of this article first appeared at bisnow.com