As recently as spring, the conversation in Georgia about the possibility of legal casino and pari-mutuel betting was mostly about how widespread the industry might be. The debate, which very much involved Columbus, was about things like who could get a casino and who couldn’t, how big a community ought to be to qualify for one, and how much it should cost up front. Those discussions will surely continue, both before and after the next session of the Georgia General Assembly convenes in January.
But for now, a much more basic question has been put very publicly before lawmakers: Should the state consider the matter at all?
The Georgia Republican Convention now says, quite resolutely (no pun intended), that it should not.
Over the weekend, as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the GOP state committee approved, by an overwhelming margin, a resolution opposing the creation of casino and horse racing industries in Georgia. (An interesting detail reported by the AJC: The party’s recently elected chair, John Watson, recused himself from the vote because he is a lobbyist who has represented legal gaming interests.)
The resolution holds that the state “should not have a vested interest in predatory activities such as gambling for the sake of filling state coffers at the expense of ruined lives and broken families.”
This promises to be an interesting discussion. For one thing, Georgia has been a sponsor of legal gambling for more than two decades already, in the form of the Georgia Lottery. Debates about whether lotteries pose the same kind and degree of problems as other forms of gambling will probably never be resolved, but casino proponents say the revenues would bring in even more money for the HOPE scholarship and grant program.
For another, in Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature this will probably be less a partisan fight than an intraparty one. One clause in the GOP resolution notes that the gambling bills proposed in the last session “mask the negative connotations of casino gambling by referring to casinos euphemistically as ‘destination resorts’” — a jab at the legislation’s principal sponsor, Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who has used that term in describing the kinds of venues he would like to see created in Georgia.
Beach, whose initial proposal called for a minimum $2 million private investment and a 20 percent casino tax rate for HOPE and rural health care, told WSB-TV in Atlanta, “I have the utmost respect for the Republican Party and the state committee.” But he added that the ultimate decision should rest with Georgia voters: "There’s nothing more conservative or more Republican than letting the voters have a say at the ballot box and vote on an issue."
It hasn’t made it to the voters yet, and lawmakers (until recently, mostly Democrats) have been trying sporadically to bring it to a vote for at least 60 years. Right now, issues like casino “population triggers” aren’t exactly moot, but they aren’t exactly urgent, either.