The Georgia Senate Preservation of the HOPE Scholarship Program Study Committee recently held two days of hearings about how casinos and horseracing could help the state’s underfunded HOPE Scholarship program. The merit-based scholarship program currently is funded by the Georgia Lottery.
The lawmakers are considering two proposals. State Rep. Ron Stephens’ measure, House Bill 677, would authorize the construction of one casino resort in each of six regions throughout the state, plus a casino in Atlanta. The licensing fee for the Atlanta casino would be $25 million and the others would be $10 million. Licenses would be good for 15 years. The casinos would pay 12 percent of gross revenue. According to one study, the casinos could have a $5 billion economic impact, create more than 30,000 permanent jobs and generate $288 million in annual gaming tax revenue.
Another bill, Senate Resolution 135, a constitutional amendment sponsored by state Rep. Brandon Beach, was approved by a Senate committee. Beach said a single horseracing track in metro Atlanta generate $25 million a year for HOPE and also help support the state’s equine industry. Atlanta is the only one of the 20 largest U.S. metro areas without a horseracing track. Supporters noted legalized parimutuel betting could lead to Georgia hosting the Breeders’ Cup, which could attract more than 100,000 people and have an economic impact of tens of millions of dollars, ultimately leading to opening off-track betting sites.
The committee will make its recommendations before the legislative session reconvenes in January. A two-thirds majority would be required in both the House and Senate to send the measure to voters statewide in November 2016. If approved, voters in each region then would decide if they want a casino.
Among those who spoke at the hearings was MGM Resorts International Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim Murren. He told legislators, “Your population today spends hundreds of millions of dollars in gaming facilities. Unfortunately they’re not here in the state of Georgia.” Murren presented details of the $1 billion casino resort MGM Resorts is building in Maryland and noted Atlanta could support a similar property plus a smaller casino in Savannah.
Murren said casinos account for less than 10 percent of the footprints MGM Resorts’ properties; most of their developments include convention halls, retail shops, hotel rooms and entertainment facilities. “We’re one of largest hoteliers in the United States and one of the largest retailers in the United States. We don’t build ‘slot boxes,’” Murren said. He stated an MGM project in Atlanta would create 3,000 to 4,000 temporary construction jobs and 4,000 to 5,000 permanent jobs.
Committee member state Senator Burt Jones noted gaming is “one idea” among several that could be implemented to help the HOPE program. “I’m interested to hear other options. Casino gambling, let’s think of the hurdles you’d have to get over,” Jones said.
No gambling opponents spoke at the hearings, although lobbyists for conservative groups and other opponents observed the proceedings closely. Georgia Baptist Convention lobbyist Mike Griffin said, “It reminds me of a carpetbagger mentality, that all of the sudden Georgia’s doing so bad that we need someone to come down here, sell us out to the gambling industry to get educating our children.”
Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chairman Sheldon Adelson was not present at the hearings but recently canceled consulting contracts for public relations and lobbying in Florida so he could concentrate on Atlanta, said Nick Iarossi, the Sands’ Florida lobbyist, whose own contract was canceled.
“I understand their perspective. We’ve been pushing this for six years with no success,” Iarossi told FloridaPolitics.com. He said Sands executives were meeting with legislative leaders in Georgia about the possibility of opening a destination casino in Atlanta. Iarossi added the lack of a compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe also affected Adelson’s decision. The state and the tribe still are in mediation. “As long as the tribe is influencing the gaming landscape, there will never be room for us,” Iarossi said.
The Senate Preservation of the HOPE Scholarship Program Study Committee will hold another round of hearings on November 2 in Savannah.