Georgia Peach

Georgia Casino Exploratory Meeting Scheduled for September

There is still a long, long way to go, but at least one small step is about to be taken in the quest for legalized casino gambling the state of Georgia. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, two September meetings have been scheduled to discuss the possible legalization of land-based casinos in the Peach State.

The meetings will be hosted by the Senate Preservation of the HOPE Scholarship Program Study Committee on September 14th and 15th. The Committee will look into the feasibility of casino gambling, including its possible social and economic effects, and submit a report by December 1st.

The lottery is the only form of gambling currently legal in the state, though Georgia is ahead of most other states in one regard: it makes lottery ticket sales and other lottery games available online, one of just four states to do so.

georgia postcardThe HOPE Scholarship, launched in 1993 in conjunction with the Georgia lottery, helps pay tuition for students enrolled in Georgia colleges and universities (public, private, or technical). It also funds public pre-K programs throughout the state. In order to be eligible for the scholarship, high school students must maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average and keep that up once in college. The HOPE Scholarship has been a resounding success, but with that success (literally) comes a price, as the state has had trouble financing it in recent years. As such, in 2011, the scholarship stopped paying for books and mandatory fees. Additionally, likely a way to reduce the number of students receiving money, new “academic vigor” standards took effect this year, requiring high school students to take multiple upper-level courses. Those academic vigor requirements will escalate through the year 2017.

On the bright side, the Zell Miller Scholarship was created in 2011, which pays 100 percent tuition for the state’s top high school students who enroll in public colleges. It pays about $4,300 per year for those who go to private school.

To give an example of current HOPE Scholarship awards, a student taking 15 credit hours this semester at Georgia Tech in Atlanta will receive $3,495, offsetting much of the $4,906 tuition. Scholarship amounts vary school to school.

The reason that it is the Senate Preservation of the HOPE Scholarship Program Study Committee conducting the meetings and investigating the possibility of casino gambling is that not only does the Georgia lottery currently fund the HOPE Scholarship, but legislation introduced in March by State Representative Ron Stephens (R – Savannah) would legalize land-based casinos and use revenue generated to fund the HOPE Scholarship.

The meetings also follow July reports that MGM Resorts International has proposed a $1 billion casino resort development in downtown Atlanta. “I’ve seen it, the conceptual plan at least,” Rep. Stephens told the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “It will compare with anything in Las Vegas.”

He added, “Right now, we’re funding HOPE on the backs of poor people,” talking about the lottery. “These guys are willing to put $250 million a year into HOPE.”

Stephens’ bill, HB 677, would authorize the construction of as many as six brick-and-mortar casinos in Georgia. The Georgia constitution already divides the state into five licensing regions and, according to HB 677, four of them would be authorized to house one casino, while the other Region 1, would get as many as two. Region 1 includes metropolitan Atlanta and about the entire northern third of the state, as well as several east-central counties. The second casino in that region would “contain no more than an aggregate of 2,000 gaming positions,” while all other casinos would have no restrictions on size.

Licensing fees for a “primary casino” in Region 1 would be $25 million, while the licensing fee for all others would be $10 million. These are one-time fees and the licenses would be valid for 15 years. Taxes would be 12 percent of gross gaming revenue, all going to state, mostly to fund the HOPE Scholarship and related educational programs.

If the bill passes (and it won’t be looked at until at least the beginning of 2016), that doesn’t mean casinos will suddenly sprout from the ground. Residents of any county in which a developer is looking to build a casino would have to approve the casino via a referendum vote. The bill actually lays out the exact language that would be required of the referendum:

Shall the governing authority of (name of county or municipality) be authorized to permit the establishment of a licensed resort facility within (name of county or municipality) where casino gaming is permitted, which will provide (name of county or municipality) with new job opportunities and economic benefit, and which will provide the state with a new source of net tax revenues to preserve the future financial stability of the HOPE scholarship program and other educational programs?

Casinos would be regulated by the Georgia Lottery Corporation, which would see its name changed to the Georgia Lottery and Casino Gaming Commission.

The language is a bit confusing, but HB 677 does seem to permit internet gambling , though it does not do anything to explicitly legalize and regulate it. One section prohibits the transmission of wagers from one person to another over the internet, but then it makes exceptions:

(d) The provisions of subsections (b) and (c) of this Code section shall not apply to a wager placed by a person for the person’s own benefit or, without compensation, for the benefit of another that is accepted or received by, placed with, or sent, transmitted, or relayed to: (1) Any other person or licensed resort facility that is licensed to engage in wagering pursuant to this chapter, if the wager is accepted or received within this state and otherwise complies with all other applicable laws and regulations concerning wagering; or (2) Any other person or licensed resort facility that is licensed to engage in wagering in another jurisdiction and is permitted to accept or receive a wager from patrons within this state under any agreement entered into by the Governor pursuant to this chapter or the rules and regulations of the commission.

So, if I am interpreting that correctly, it does appear that the door is open both for intrastate internet gambling and interstate online gambling compacts. That is, of course, if this bill were to become law, which is a longshot in one of the most barren gambling states in the country.

Currently, the most viable options for live casino gambling for residents of Georgia are to make the trek to Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina, head down to Florida, or drive west to Mississippi and Louisiana (Alabama does have casinos, but they only offer slots). Casinos in Georgia would likely rake in tons of money, as residents of the state would no longer have to drive hours for their gambling entertainment. As mentioned, though, the current status quo is much more likely than casino legalization, especially because Governor Nathan Deal said that there will be no expansion of gambling as long as he is in office.

But he presided over the Atlanta Snowpocalypse of January 2014, so what does he know?

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