Casino Resolution Passes Georgia House Committee

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a couple pieces of legislation that would legalize horse racing betting in Georgia passing a Senate committee vote. It appears that gambling may actually have some semblance of momentum in the Peach State, as this past Friday, another Resolution was passed unanimously by a House committee. This one aims to legalize casino gambling.

A Yes or No Question

House Resolution 327, passed by the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee is summarized as follows:

A RESOLUTION proposing an amendment to the Constitution so as to authorize the General Assembly to provide by law for the local authorization of a limited number of licensed destination resort facilities casino resorts within the state; to authorize the operation and regulation of limited casino gaming within the state; to provide for related matters; to provide for the submission of this amendment for ratification or rejection; and for other purposes.

This resolution is not a deep, all-encompassing regulatory piece of legislation. Instead, all it looks to do is put the matter of casino gambling to vote on the November 2020 ballot so that the residents of Georgia can decide what they want. Should it get to that point and then win the state vote, lawmakers would then hash out the nitty-gritty details of regulation separately. Rather than going through the effort to craft an entire casino gaming industry on paper only to risk a bill going nowhere, the idea is to see if the people (including me!) would want it first.

“This bill does one thing and one thing only,” Resolution sponsor and Committee Chair Ron Stephens (R – Savannah) told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It allows the public to finally make a decision on whether they want to have destination (gaming) resorts or not.”

Gambling for Education

Georgia StampNaturally, a benefit proponents of casino resorts cite is the boost in jobs and local investment they would provide (Atlanta, for instance, is as major convention city, but not much of a tourist city – a casino could help strengthen both). The major reason lawmakers and others would like to legalize casino gambling, though, is to juice the coffers of the HOPE Scholarship. The HOPE Scholarship, currently funded by the state lottery, provides tuition assistance to Georgia students who go to in-state colleges and universities (public, private, and technical). It also funds public pre-K programs.

The scholarship is based purely on grades – very attainable ones at that – and has therefore been a runaway hit in the state. That’s the problem. Because the HOPE Scholarship has been so popular, the lottery has had trouble keeping up with the funding. As a result, scholarship benefits have been reduced over the years and more rigorous coursework requirements have been put in place in order to make it more difficult to earn. The gaming tax proceeds from casinos would go toward giving the HOPE Scholarship the injection it needs.

In fact, the House Resolution uses the HOPE Scholarship in the propose ballot wording:

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to preserve the long-term financial stability of the HOPE scholarship program and to support other scholarship programs through net tax and licensing revenues generated by permitting the establishment of licensed destination resort facilities where casino gaming is permitted?

It is a clever way to phrase the ballot measure. “Casino” does not appear until the fourth-to-last word. Instead, Stephens frames it to the voters as an amendment to help the HOPE Scholarship and students. After all, who wouldn’t want to help the good students of the state, the future of our society, right? If it was simply something like, “Should casinos be legal in Georgia,” I think it would be safe to say it would not have nearly as much of a chance to garner 50+ percent of the vote than it would with the current wording.

The Republican leaders of the Georgia government are not in favor of gambling, but they have said they will not stand in the way of this measure. The day before the Resolution passed, House Speaker David Ralston was interviewed Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Lawmakers” and said, “I have some serious concerns, on a personal level, on gambling. But I have to set those aside and recognize there’s actually a tremendous amount of support around the state for having one or two casinos here in Georgia.”

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp told the AJC through a spokesman essentially the same thing, that he is opposed to gambling, but that “hardworking Georgians will have the ultimate say if a constitutional amendment is placed on the ballot.”

By nature of the casino measure being a constitutional amendment rather than a regular bill, even if Kemp was dead-set against gambling, he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it if it made it through the entire process. Two-thirds of lawmakers must first approve it to get it onto the November 2020 ballot, and then it would need a majority of votes by Georgians (so 50 percent plus one). The Governor cannot veto it.

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