Georgia could join the list of states that allow casino gaming under bills being filed by lawmakers from Atlanta and Savannah.
But gaming fans might face long odds. Among skeptics are some midstate lawmakers who ask what the payout would be for communities far from the “destination resorts” proposed in the bills.
Georgians looking to play roulette, craps or other casino games would no longer need to point their cars to North Carolina or Mississippi under the identical bills set to be introduced Wednesday in the state House and Senate by state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, and state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta.
Their bills would see the state allow two “destinations,” complete with restaurants, entertainment, hotel rooms, retail space and yes, gaming. The state would take 20 percent of the revenue and use the money to help bankroll the lottery-funded, merit-based HOPE college scholarship program. The lottery does not raise enough revenue to pay full tuition for all eligible students.
“The HOPE Scholarship funding is … continually going down. This will help fund the HOPE Scholarship and education, number one,” said Beach.
The larger of the two destinations would be somewhere in metro Atlanta. The other one would go elsewhere. Coastal Georgia seems like a good bet.
“These people that are investing these large dollars are more interested in the I-95 corridor. They want to be close to South Carolina or either Florida … so they can capture the traffic,” said Stephens.
Legislative approval of their idea would be the first step. Gaming would also require the OK from Georgia voters in a statewide referendum.
But Beach and Stephens might have a hard time winning over lawmakers whose voters live far from the jobs a resort would bring. Some from Middle Georgia say their constituents need benefits besides HOPE.
“It’s a little bit different for a rural legislator,” said state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, whose district includes all or part of seven counties.
“You talking about putting a casino in Atlanta? You think folks in Hahira are going to be working up here in Atlanta?” Lucas said. “I think there’s a way to do it, but unless there’s a guarantee that money goes in health care, rural health care and trauma centers, I’m against it.”
Across the aisle, Musella Republican state Rep. Robert Dickey said he supports HOPE, but he’s been skeptical of casinos and will be against them unless the benefits are spread across the state.
“We need the casino tax money going to help some underserved areas in this state, rural areas and some economically depressed areas to help some citizens somehow or another ... just to throw it to the HOPE Scholarship, I’m not in favor,” Dickey said.
Their city colleague, Macon Democrat state Rep. James Beverly, also said he wants to see some specific benefit to his constituents from casinos.
He said he’s favor of the money going to HOPE and to passenger rail.
If those two things are part of it, and there are specific opportunities for Macon-Bibb County, he said he’s for it.
“But if not, then, we’ll see,” said Beverly.
A recent state audit suggested that Georgia might be able to squeeze more HOPE money out of the existing lottery by changing payouts, ticket prices or management. A bill signed by top Republican senators would require Georgia’s lottery agency to return a bigger share of revenue to the state.
Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee