For over 100 years, legislators and lobbyists have been pushing to legalize casinos in Georgia, and it seemed like this year might have been the time.
House Resolution 807 (HR 807), authored by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, would have Georgia residents voting on whether they’d want to see the first casino being built in the state. The resolution would allow the vote to amend part of the state constitution that makes gambling illegal and allow casino resorts to be built in Georgia.
Stephens partnered his resolution with House Bill 677 (HB 677) which stated that Georgia would not have more than four casino resorts, and that two would have to be located in Metro Atlanta.
But Stephens said neither of the bills earned a spot in this year’s General Assembly vote and have both been withdrawn and tabled for another, undetermined voting session.
In February 2016, the Regulated Industries Committee in the Georgia House of Representatives, unanimously approved a state-wide vote which would give Georgians a chance to vote on whether they’d like to amend the state constitution and legalize casino resorts and gambling or keep it unaltered.
In a poll conducted by the national firm Abt SRBI, stated 62 percent of registered voters said they would have voted in favor of having casinos in Georgia to support the HOPE scholarship.
Matt Ramsey, Georgia’s house majority whip, told the Atlanta Business Chronicle in February that he believed that one of the driving forces for the legalization of gambling is the fact that 20 percent of its gross gaming revenue will be used for educational programs such as the HOPE Scholarship Program, which is estimated to run out in the next five to 10 years, according to the Committee to Preserve HOPE Scholarships.
Stephens said both the bills have been an attempted to keep funding alive for the scholarship, but said that until the Opportunity Schools referendum had passed, both of them would be on hold.
“I gave my word to multiple people that I’d be quiet until the Opportunity Schools referendum has been passed,” Stephens said.
The referendum Stephens mentioned is also known as the Senate Bill 133 (SB 133), which would form an Opportunity School District and govern certain elementary and secondary schools determined to be “chronically failing.”
After a report compiled by the Center of Reinventing Public Education was released in November 2015, it revealed that Atlanta, compared to 50 other cities, had the sixth worst graduation rate from high school. Even though Georgia’s current high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 78.8 percent, the national average of students that graduate from high school still remains higher, at 81 percent.
Governor Nathan Deal proposed SB 133 as a solution to reforming schools that have the highest failing rates in the state. Rather than legalizing casino resorts as a way to fund the HOPE Scholarship Program, he saw it pertinent to give more students a chance of being able to earn HOPE by improving failing schools and the amount of students declining in them.
Stephens said he’s in full support of the governor’s bill.
“There are schools in Georgia that are failing and aren’t getting our kids ready for the university system much less the technical colleges,” Stephens said. “We couldn’t increase the size of the pie, if you will, in the HOPE Scholarship when we can’t get our kids ready for college.”
However, he said as soon as SB 133 passes, he will continue to push for the two casino bills.
“It probably will be after November, after the election. After it passes, and I hope it does, I’m all for jumping on to increase the size of the HOPE scholarship,” Stephens said.
Although Governor Deal has opposed bringing gambling into Georgia, in 2013 he signed a piece of legislation that increased the amount of coin-operated gambling machines and approved online lottery sales.
Proposals on where to build the casino resorts began once the public got word about the introduction of two gambling legislations. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in July MGM Resorts International, a casino and entertainment corporation, pitched a billion-dollar proposal and hired five lobbyists to help them back them effort.
The proposal would create 3,500 jobs and would include Las Vegas-style casino gambling, with black jack tables and roulette wheels, as opposed to only video slot machines, as other casino resort developers had previously suggested. Additionally, the resort could include a luxury hotel, ritzy restaurants and extravagant shows. The casino chain’s CEO, Jim Murren told the AJC he wants to create an environment in Atlanta that could be comparable to Las Vegas.
These efforts to bring gambling to Georgia have readily been shot down in the past. Opposers to casinos and past gambling bills think that this new proposal wouldn’t bring the state all the benefits supporters are claiming it will.
Jon Gabrielsen, President and Chief Executive Officer of J.T. Gabrielsen Consulting, said he believes that supporters of casinos in Georgia have a different agenda than what they are proposing casinos would be used for.
“I just think casinos are horrible. I grew up in Michigan at the time they put casinos in Detroit. Every casino I’ve heard of, including the one in Detroit, the first year is their best year,” Gabrielsen said “Then they start to return less and less revenue each year because they have to start protecting the area from all the various, unsavory people that showed up.”
Jennifer Zorland, a Georgia State Psychology professor, had studied gambling addiction amongst students. She said she believes casinos shouldn’t be around Georgia State because when there’s greater access to gambling, rates of gambling addiction tend to increase.
“Research suggests that college students have higher rates of problem gambling than others,” Zorland told The Signal.
Even though she said she believes casinos would provide more resources for education, she stated that if casinos were to be placed near campuses, there would need to be a good deal of resources dedicated to gambling addiction treatment and prevention.