Georgia state Senator Brandon Beach, said there were not enough votes to pass Senate Bill 79, which would have allowed two casinos in the state, out of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. The bill faced strong opposition from conservatives in the legislature and religious groups.
Beach, who sponsored the legislation, said, “I am not discouraged. I will double down and plan to crisscross the state starting in April” to raise awareness and backing for the bill in 2018. Beach said he will visit local Rotary clubs and speak with education leaders, hospital administrators and others to build public support. “You can tell everyone, like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Beach said.
Previously Beach had said, “Without using any taxpayer money, the state could generate millions of dollars to be reinvested in education and health care.” He called casino gambling a “good deal” from an economic development standpoint. Also, Beach said he did not believe high-end casino gambling would harm Georgia Lottery proceeds. “The people going to these destination resorts are not playing keno at the Chevron,” he stated.
Beach’s measure originally included up to six casinos and a horse racetrack. He pared that down to two “destination resort” casinos, with proceeds from a 20 percent tax going to the HOPE scholarship program, needs-based college grants, rural trauma care and rural hospitals, broadband internet infrastructure and raises for law enforcement officers. The first casino, which would have been located in the Atlanta area, required a $2 billion investment; the second, to be located within 30 miles of a large convention center, possibly would have been developed in Macon, Columbus, Savannah or Augusta, with a required a $450 million investment.
A statewide referendum would have determined if voters want to allow casino gambling, followed by local referendums allowing residents to decide if they want a casino in their community.
Beach said the two Georgia casinos could generate up to $450 million for annually for the state and create about 5,000 jobs.
Nearly identical legislation sponsored by state Rep. Ron Stephens still is technically alive in the House, although it’s not likely to move forward without its Senate companion bill. “We will not give up on these kids. We will not give up on the HOPE scholarship, the HOPE grant and pre-kindergarten funding as it continues to dwindle. We’ll be back again,” Stephens said.
House Speaker David Ralston said the final day of the session “was probably not the most appropriate time” to consider a bill when members still disagree on important details.
“We’re going to take a deep breath and come back and look at it some over the interim,” he said. “It’s an issue I think deserves discussion. I’m not advocating for the issue, but I think it’s one a lot of House members have an interest in.”
But Georgia still could get a casino if the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma succeeds in opening a casino in Georgia near Ball Ground—which, by coincidence, is located in Cherokee County, part of the Cherokees’ traditional lands before they were removed in the 1830s.
Governor Nathan Deal said, “My personal opinion is I don’t think we want that in our state. If it were to go to a federally designated Indian reservation, we lose that control. And I’m not in favor of losing that control.”
But Assistant Chief Jamie Thompson said he’s optimistic based on reports from the state legislature. “These are preliminary negotiations, so I can’t go into any detail, but I can say that they are really positive. I don’t know how many calls I’ve received from people who are really excited. There is a lot of good feedback,” he said.
Attorney Richard Lea, representing the UKB, said while the state process to open a casino could take up to seven years, the UKB holds a corporate charter with the U.S. Department of the Interior, and therefore could avoid the long process of placing land in federal trust to open a casino. In fact, the tribe does not need to work with state officials, but would prefer to do that, said UKB Corporate Board member Anile Locust. “An agreement with the state before land purchase would be so much easier,” Locust said. In addition, the tribe could partner with another gaming operator to develop a casino resort.