In conservative Georgia, gambling gets a look as economy continues to struggle

Horse racing, casinos under consideration

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ATLANTA — Strong support around Georgia in favor of Sunday alcohol sales is energizing some advocates who say the political climate in the state could finally be ripe to expand gambling interests as governments search for fresh revenue sources.

The state House is looking at betting on horse racing. A report commissioned by the state lottery found that casinos at key locations across the state could generate nearly $1 billion a year.

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill earlier this year that dealt with coin-operated gaming machines but said he would be open to another bill that addressed concerns he had about illegal gambling.

Gambling measures will still be a tough sell in a Republican-led, Bible Belt state. But the mere fact that they are being talked about – not dismissed as a dead on arrival – is a signal to some that times have changed.

“It’s being discussed openly in political and legislative circles, more than I’ve ever heard,” said Tom Perdue, a veteran Georgia Republican strategist.

Perdue said the Sunday sales vote have some lawmakers who have reflexively opposed gambling measures taking a second look.

“They are related,” Perdue said. “If not sisters, then definitely cousins.”

In Sunday sales votes that took place in counties and cities around the state earlier this month, 105 of the 127 referendums on the ballot passed, according to the Georgia Food Industry Association. The measures flew through without any organized opposition, which has encouraged gambling proponents.

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, said the governor remains opposed to the expansion of gambling.

But Deal’s opposition might not kill efforts to bring gambling to Georgia.

Multiple groups have pushed for expanding the state’s gaming industry after the lottery started in 1992. Advocates say the state is losing money to neighboring states with more options for players.

One group, the HOPE 20/20 Coalition, is pushing for installing video lottery terminals across the state, a move that would not require a constitutional amendment because state law doesn’t specifically ban the machines. Experts estimate the state has between 10,000 and 20,000 illegal video gambling machines already in operation – with profits of about $200,000 each week.

The coalition’s aim is to help restore the HOPE scholarship and state’s prekindergarten programs back to full funding. The legislature made massive cuts to both programs this year, doing away with full scholarships for all but the state’s highest performing students and slashing 20 days out of the pre-k calendar.

The HOPE program also no longer pays for books or campus fees. That means students must shell out thousands more each year to attend college in Georgia.

Deal said the cuts were necessary to prevent the programs from going bankrupt after demand for the scholarships and pre-k outpaced lottery sales.

Georgia lottery board chairman Jimmy Braswell has said the lottery-commissioned study on casinos was meant to “bring some clarity to” how much gaming could raise for the state. The study found that a casino in downtown Atlanta could bring in nearly $800 million a year if it had 5,000 machines.

State Rep. Harry Geisinger, a Roswell Republican, is pushing a constitutional amendment that would allow pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in the state. It would need to pass each chamber of the state Legislature by a two-thirds majority and would also need approval by voters. But it would not need the governor’s signature.

Under Geisinger’s resolution, money from the horse racing would be poured into the cash-strapped coffers of the HOPE scholarship, pre-k and trauma care.

“Without raising taxes,” Geisinger notes. “This would have a huge benefit for Georgia.”

Geisinger has been pushing the horse racing initiative for years and says it has bipartisan backing. This year, House Speaker David Ralston gave his blessing to a study committee to give the issue a closer look.

Geisinger said the panel traveled to Lexington, Ky. – on their own dime – to study its impact there. And on Nov. 17, former Breeders’ Cup board Chairman Bill Farish and Nick Nicholson, president and CEO of Kentucky’s Keeneland Association, trekked to Georgia to meet privately with a group of state legislators and Deal.

In addition to changing attitudes, gambling could get a boost from the sluggish economy. While Georgia’s tax receipts have been improving they still lag significantly behind pre-recessionary levels.

Republicans who control both chambers of the state Legislature as well as the governor’s mansion are loathe to raise taxes. Gambling revenues would provide a fresh new revenue stream.

“There’s not a question that we’re in a bad ditch and we need something to jumpstart Atlanta, to jumpstart Georgia,” said developer Hal Barry, who’s pushing for horse racing in the state.

“When the lottery was voted in, everybody questioned the lottery, and what happened?” he said. “This is something that can help the state of Georgia in a big way.”

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dickworth1 11/29/11 - 10:57 pm
I would be opposed to

I would be opposed to gambling unless the revenue goes toward unemployment and property tax issues and not tothe hope scholarship.
While the hope scholarship is a good thing, why should I help finance
future lawyers, doctors, bankers, etc and then these educated professionals charge you a fortune for their services and the heck with the non college grads. These hope scholarships should be loans not grants.

charliemanson 11/30/11 - 02:12 am
Crime would skyrocket as

Crime would skyrocket as people search for new sources of revenue to support their gambling habits.

Vito45 11/30/11 - 02:12 am
What are the relative crime

What are the relative crime rates around Cherokee, The Indian Casinos in Connecticut, Vegas, Tahoe, Reno, Atlantic City, Mississippi? It is kind of like prostitution, a victimless crime as far as the general public is concerned. The affected families might disagree, but that is between them and the ho hopper or gambler.

shrimp for breakfast
shrimp for breakfast 11/30/11 - 03:02 am
I'm with you dickworth1. I

I'm with you dickworth1.

I don't drink or gamble so Sunday sales and Horse Racing would not affect me.
I graduated college 30 years ago so I don't need a scholarship.
I'm all for scholarships. I'll have my first kid starting college next year and three more behind her within 6 more years. The problem is they don't qualify for a HOPE scholarship I'm sure.
I could use some help with property taxes for sure. As it stands now my kids are going to be running up some hefty student loans. They know how much their mother and I can help and they'll have to foot the rest. I have never seen the economy this bad in my 53 years. It's going to take a miracle to get people back to work.
Right now I'm wondering if there will be employment for my kids when they finish school.
I know I'm lucky that we all have health insurance at the moment and we can pay the bills when so many folks can't.
I don't have any answers but it looks like we need to start thinking outside the box. I just don't want the poor to get poorer by gambling away the little money they have. Other than that we've got to do something to plug the hole in this sinking ship known as America.

Ushouldnthave 11/30/11 - 07:55 am
Address HOPE by restricting

Address HOPE by restricting the Board of Regents from increasing tuition every chance they get. They are the problem, not falling revenue.

Rob Pavey 11/30/11 - 10:07 am
Instead of more gambling

Instead of more gambling maybe they should make HOPE grants higher, but also make the requirements tougher. About 70 percent of HOPE recipients lose eligibility their first year. That's a lot of money wasted on kids who perhaps shouldnt be there in the first place. I just wonder if making eligibility tougher at the freshman level would increase the percentage of HOPE-funded kids who actually stay in school and get degrees.

dms10102001 11/30/11 - 04:56 pm
Here's the deal with gambling

Here's the deal with gambling in GA. I do support it for several reasons. I think that as an adult in a free society anyone should be able to gamble if they so choose to do it. They've worked for their money, paid taxes on that money, and it should be their choice how to risk it. Everyone who "plays" the stock market gambles. I've lost a lot more in stocks than I'll ever lose in gambling. That's why the call "blue chip" stock blue chip stocks because they are the highest valued stocks on the market. This comes fromt the term used on the poker table because the blue chips in a poker game are the highest valued chip in the game. My last trip to Mississippi to gamble I was there for 3 days and 2 nights. Every single person I talked to whether in the casino, on the elevator or at the huddle house eating breakfast who was not a local from MS was from Georgia. There is HUGE amounts of money being lost from the GA economy because gamblers are going to North Carolina to Cherokee and to Mississippi and to other surrounding gambling locations. They should legalize both casino and internet gambling in the state for those who want to gamble locally instead of having to pay extra to travel to other locations to gamble. If you don't gamble, still support it because it is a hobby for many just like golf, boating, or camping may be a hobby for many of you.

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