What are the odds gambling comes to the Peach State?

Lawmakers return to the Gold Dome on Monday for the start of the 2017 legislative session, and a proposal to bring casinos and other types of gambling to Georgia is expected to be one of the major issues they will deal with this year.

A proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed four casinos in Georgia — two in metro Atlanta and two elsewhere — stalled in the House last year, but state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, who proposed the measure in 2016, has said he’ll bring it back.

And casino backers are expected to have a major presence in the Capitol this year: Lobbying records show at least 49 registrations on behalf of gambling companies.

Supporters of the bill say tax revenue from the casinos would be used to help fund education in the state and could spur economic development, but opponents say these benefits don’t outweigh the potential drawbacks.

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-West Cobb, said the history of locations that have legalized gambling should serve as cautionary tales for Georgia.

“If it’s a good business model, then prove it by looking at Atlantic City,” Tippins said. “They’re on the verge of bankruptcy. They’re in social decay in the entire area around (what) was the hub of their gambling operation. There’s nothing about Atlantic City that I want to bring to the state of Georgia, economically, socially or otherwise.”

Other Cobb Republicans are also skeptical of the potential benefits. State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, called the proposal a “gimmick” that other states have tried without seeing a positive impact long-term.

“I think we’re called not to challenge this only on moral or ethical grounds, which I think many people have valid concerns about, but if you look at (it) purely economically, I believe it’s an economic development gimmick, and I think we’ve got to be better than this as a state,” Setzler said.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, said she generally supports bringing casinos to Georgia, but emphasized that she would only support such a proposal if the revenue was used specifically for needs-based aid for college-students.

“If we provide a significant portion of the funds to go toward needs-based aid, I personally am in favor generally of casino gambling with the caveat that the local area has to approve it, which is how the bill was written last session,” Evans said.

State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, took a similar stance on the issue.

“I haven’t committed one way or the other in supporting it, but it’s a non-starter if it doesn’t talk about a HOPE 2 or something where it’s needs-based,” Wilkerson said.

Evans said Georgia is one of the few states that don’t offer needs-based aid and that studies have shown that unexpected expenses for students — on average between $300 and $1,000 — are a major factor leading to students dropping out.

“It can be as little as a flat tire or a sickness that could throw you completely off course. … And when you leave, you don’t come back,” she said.

But Tippins said the lawmakers must look past the potential good they could do with the revenue from casinos and consider the potential social impacts.

“If you’re willing to do anything for money, my goodness, look at the doors that would be open,” Tippins said. “You could legalize and tax prostitution. You could legalize and tax narcotics. There may be a lot of cash flow coming in, but it’s very detrimental to the social fabric that I think all of us who have families and who are trying to leave legacies for our children and grandchildren, having a good place to live in Cobb County and the state of Georgia, it’d be ridiculous to vote to support that.”

Setzler said the economic benefits would be concentrated with those who own and operate the casino, and state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, said though the state has gambling in the form of a lottery, casinos would be a much different animal.

“I think that what folks need to remember is that the lottery is run by the state of Georgia,” Reeves said. “The casinos, while regulated by the state, would not be run by the state. And there’s a very big difference between those two things.”

Reeves also worried about the public relations blitz casino companies would launch to try to gain support from voters for a constitutional amendment.

“Hypothetically, if we did that then this would be on a ballot, and there would be a very intense advocacy campaign leading up to that ballot vote. And that industry would have an unlimited budget in … funding that narrative and presenting it as ‘This is how we save the education crisis in Georgia.’ Creating that narrative — it’s not a fair fight or a fair advocacy.”

But Evans said needs-based aid for college students should be a priority for lawmakers this year.

“We make an investment in a student the day they enter into a college campus or a technical college campus. And if they leave, we’ve lost all the money that we’ve invested. So we need to put some thought into support for needs-based aid, and the casino gambling is potentially one way to do that,” Evans said.

Wilkerson said some Republicans may have moral objections to the idea of casinos in Georgia, but the odds of it passing this year are better than a longshot.

“Since Republicans have taken control, things that you didn’t think would happen have happened. We have alcohol on Sundays. We have no smoking in restaurants. So there’s a lot of things that people would have thought never would have passed years ago. So I don’t think casino gambling is that far out of it. … I think it’s definitely got a chance,” he said.

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