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Economic Development

Feb. 14 - Senate version of Casino bills adds back Local Referendum decision on citing of "Destination Resorts"

Category: Economic Development

by Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

February 14, 2017 - The House and Senate versions of a bill that would put the question of bringing casinos to Georgia on the ballot, in 2018 as a Constitutional Amendment, had its first committee hearing last week before the Senate’s Regulated Industries Committee.

No votes were taken and the chairman said that another hearing would be scheduled within a week. 

State Rep. Ron Stephens is the House sponsor of HB 158, and Sen. Brandon Beach is the lead sponsor for the Senate version of the bill, SB 79. 

The details of the bills have changed significantly since being introduced three weeks ago.  They now call for up to two casinos somewhere in Georgia, one in a county with a population of more than 650,000; the initial version had a population of 900,000.  Four counties qualify at that level:  Fulton County (home to Atlanta), Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb.  The second casino would go into a county with at least 180,000 population. 

According to sources, the city of Columbus leaders want a casino – there are long-standing concerns about the loss of their military base there, and both active duty and civilian jobs.

The bill still calls for the casinos to only be taxed at a 20 percent rate, a rate that is lower than what many states in the U.S. with casinos are receiving.

And, to gain support from House members in rural Georgia, the projected annual revenue to the State of $350 would be split with 50% going to merit-based Hope scholarship students; 30% going to needs-based Hope students – a long standing goal of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus – and 20 percent to rural Georgia hospitals.

But, the biggest change is that Sen. Beach has added back a promise that Rep. Ron Stephens had made going back two years – that before the Georgia Gaming Commission can award a license, the local voters in a county targeted for a casino must vote to approve. This “local referendum” vote would take place in 2019, presumably, after the Gaming Commission entered negotiations with various casino companies. But, that language is only in the Senate version. 

In Stephen's House version, Line 260 - 264 of the bill states: "The commission shall have the ability to select the county in 262 which the destination resort license is awarded, so long as the destination resort application 263 to the commission is compliant with all criteria needed in addition to all state and local 264 alcohol, zoning, occupancy, and other land use laws the commission deems appropriate." 

And Rep. Stephen's version keeps the population size for the smaller of the two casinos in a county with a population of 250,000. That cuts out Columbus, and puts the focus back on Chatham County with a population of 289.000. 

Voters will also have to be well educated about voting for the Constitutional Amendment in November 2018 IF the bill gets through the House and the Senate.  The word “casino” does not appear in the bill, and the current bills says that the question on the ballot will be:  “Shall the Georgia Gaming Commission be authorized to issue a license for a destination resort to be located in (name of county or municipality)?”

The AJC has reported that the hearing room was full of Baptist preachers. “We’re concerned this is an issue of money being put over morality,” said Mike Griffin, a public affairs representative of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “That the end justifies the means. All these ornaments are being put on the Christmas tree, it’s almost like 30 pieces of silver to get everyone to buy into this,” the AJC reported. 

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