Georgia legislators gear up for fresh casino push


georgia-atlanta-casino-legislationPoliticians in the US state of Georgia are gearing up for another legislative push to authorize casino gambling, and this time they may even have the governor on their side.

On Tuesday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution offered a preview of new casino legislation expected to arrive in the state legislature on Wednesday. The casino bill represents a compromise from previous efforts by limiting the number of proposed gaming venues to two, while eliminating a proposal to allow pari-mutuel betting on horse races.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, a chief sponsor of the new casino push, said the bill would allow for one major ‘destination resort’ in the Atlanta area that would require a minimum investment of $2b. A secondary venue requiring investment of at least $450m would be authorized for either the Savannah, Columbus or Augusta areas.

The number of available licenses is a significant reduction from the six venues originally proposed in the casino legislation that failed to advance last year. That and other changes led Stephens to suggest legislators had “a very, very good chance of getting this thing through.”

This year’s bill calls for a tax rate of 20% of gaming revenue, significantly higher than the 12% rate in last year’s bill but closer to Gov. Nathan Deal’s preferred 24% rate. Stephens suggested that the rate was negotiable, calling the 20% figure “the beginning of the conversation.”

Deal opposed last year’s casino effort, expressing doubts that casinos would “enhance the climate of the state.” But on Tuesday Deal told local media that he was “willing to keep the discussion going” with casino supporters.

Deal is reportedly supportive of the new legislation’s pledge that 70% of the state’s gaming proceeds be earmarked for the Hope Scholarship college fund. But Deal cautioned that the state needs to be “absolutely certain that if a casino bill passes that it does not adversely impact the lottery program of the state.”

Rep. Ron Stephens plans to introduce similar legislation in the state House of Representatives. Georgia’s constitution prohibits casino gambling, requiring a constitutional amendment that garners the support of two-thirds of the legislature and the approval of a majority of state voters.

It remains to be seen how many operators remain interested in Georgia’s market given the new requirements. Last October, MGM Resorts eagerly pitched state legislators on an Atlanta resort design, although its projected $1.4b budget would leave the company $600m shy of what Stephens now refers to as the state’s “floor.”