Opinion: Independent study of casinos needed before state places bet

November 2,2019

A.J. Robinson for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As preparations begin for the upcoming legislative session, state lawmakers are — once again – contemplating the legalization of casinos and pari-mutuel betting in Georgia.

Georgia is no stranger to the ongoing casino gaming debate, as hearings in both the Senate and the House have resumed over the past few weeks. Filled with industry-driven testimony that extolled its own virtues, presenters promised new streams of revenue and positive economic impacts for both the state and the communities that would host future “destination resorts.” The resounding response from lawmakers? “Let the voters decide.”

It’s a solution that is hard to argue. However, a vote for or against gaming can easily be misleading. The question to voters is a more nuanced one, better framed by “how” or “why” rather than a simple “should we” or “shouldn’t we.” For example, “Do you want to bring casino gaming to Georgia” and “Do you want to bring casino gaming to your neighborhood” would likely yield vastly different responses. Similarly, the question of what a new tax revenue would fund may also change opinions on the issue. The details affect the answer, and it’s only fair that we have the “real” story before voting.

In 2017, Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District sought to do just that and commissioned an independent study on the possible impacts of casino gaming in Georgia. The report focused on four key areas, including state-level impacts of casino gaming, governance and regulatory best practices, social and economic effects on local host communities, and impacts on real estate development surrounding a casino. Our study found that while Georgia has the potential to be a large gaming market — assuming thoughtful approaches to tax rates, licenses, and other regulatory levers — the revenue generated would be largely from locals, not tourists. Using past legislative proposals as a proxy, out-of-state visitors were estimated to make up less than 6% of revenue of a metro Atlanta casino. In addition, the study confirmed that communities can bear high costs – social, economic, infrastructure – in hosting a casino, and adequate funding mechanisms must be in place to mitigate such impacts. The full report can be downloaded from our website, www.atlantadowntown.com.

These are only a few examples of the myriad of issues the state needs to be contemplating. And while there is some thought that these, as well as other concerns, can be mitigated to some extent, voters cannot make an informed decision without an overall understanding of both the good and the bad of casino gaming.

With over 24 states that have commercial casinos, there are no shortage of case studies to closely examine, as Georgia considers its own path forward before putting any vote on the ballot. But therein lies the rub – no study committee that relies predominantly on industry testimony is a fair study. Self-interest understandably prevails and clouds the evaluation Georgia voters deserve. It is therefore vital that state leaders commission their own independent study, considering both best practices and cautionary tales of other communities that have walked the road before us. We have too much to lose by making a blind bet.

A.J. Robinson is president, Central Atlanta Progress/Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.