The author of a plan to legalize casino gambling in Georgia received a largely positive reception from his colleagues on a Senate committee Thursday, but a room packed with Baptist preachers promised tensions to come.
State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, presented Senate Bill 79 to the Regulated Industries Committee. No vote was taken, and Chairman Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough, said another hearing would be scheduled “in a week or two.”
Beach, making adjustments to the plan almost daily, said the latest version would allow up to two casinos, one in a county with a population of more than 650,000 — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton or Gwinnett — and one in a county with a population of more than 180,000.
“We’re looking at a minimum of $2.45 billion investment and creation somewhere in the vicinity of 7,500 permanent jobs,” Beach said.
The casinos would still be taxed at 20 percent, and the proceeds, estimated to be in the $350 million-a-year range, would be split: 50 percent to the HOPE scholarship, 30 percent to needs-based grants for college and 20 percent for rural health care.
In the latest version of the bill, Beach has also reinserted a requirement that before a license can be awarded for a casino, voters in the county in which it would be located would have to approve. The local referendum is in addition to a statewide vote to amend the Georgia Constitution.
But the language of the county referendum caused at least one senator pause.
“I’m not sure it will tell someone who read that it’s really about casino gambling or the gaming industry,” said state Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon.
The ballot question, according to the latest draft of the bill, would ask: “Shall the Georgia Gaming Commission be authorized to issue a license for a destination resort to be located in (name of county or municipality)?”
Kennedy noted that the words “gambling” and “casino” were not in there. Beach assured him the language would be adjusted.
One more word of warning came from A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown civic organization. Robinson said his group recently conducted a study that found “casinos generate a lot of money, but they have their drawbacks.”
“The revenue is generated by locals, not tourists,” he said, and the Georgia Lottery, now the only source of funds for the HOPE scholarship, could face “cannibalization” by casinos.
“The social impacts are real, and those who are close to the casino will deal most with the impact,” he said.
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, however, said Atlanta competes with cities such as Chicago, Las Vegas, Nashville, New Orleans and San Diego for convention business. Each of those cities, he said, has a distinct downtown experience. Atlanta lacks such a distinction.
“We have an opportunity for a lot of people to come to Atlanta,” he said, “not through Atlanta.”
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