June 23, 2020 – Georgia’s revenue shortfall, and the delayed final session of the General Assembly now in session, have provided an opening for State Rep. Ron Stephens (GA-164) of Savannah and Democratic colleagues to once again try to get the question of bringing casino gambling and horse racing to Georgia on the ballot for voters to weigh in on the question.
Stephens is trying to pass a Resolution to put the bill on this November’s ballot. In an interview Tuesday night, Stephens said that they are "whipping the count now," to see if they have the votes to pass the House. The Resolution would then go to the Senate, with only a majority vote needed. He states that he has bi-partisan support, and that casinos and horse racing will raise $1 Billion a year and produce 50,000 jobs annually, without having to give away tax incentives. If the House and Senate pass the Resolution this week, the question goes directly on the ballot, bypassing the Governor.
On Monday, the House Regulated Industries Committee voted 13 to 3 to approve Senate Resolution 841 that would put the question of whether Georgia should expand the legal gambling definitions that created the Georgia Lottery to include casinos, horse racing and sports betting. It now goes to the House for a vote.
Stephens has led the effort in the House for a number of years, though his various bills were killed in Senate committees in the last days of last year’s session. And, he wasn’t making much progress in January and February this year, either.
But, then COVID-19 hit, and things may have changed.
Stephens states that casino gambling and horse racing would bring in badly needed state revenue. In the past, his push for casinos and horse racing was for funds raised by the sale of licenses and taxes to go to support the Hope Scholarship which is dependent on the annual profits of the Georgia Lottery. The new approach would put portions of money raised into other state coffers, as well as into Hope.
The rapid decline in state sales tax and other revenues since March has opened a new lane for Stephens to pursue, as legislators are dealing with massive state budget cuts. A state budget has still not been approved, and must be passed by Friday.
The delayed 11-day session of the General Assembly, and the agreement that bills that had not crossed over in February could be introduced through the use of substitute language, gave new life to his efforts starting last week.
“We’re in a different situation today,” Stephens said, in an interview. He has likened the state’s financial situation to 2008 when Georgia decided to pursue the film industry aggressively, creating large tax credits and incentives to pull business away from North Carolina, Los Angeles and New York.
Senate Resolution 841 passed the House Regulated Industries Committee by a vote of 13-3. It now moves to the House for a floor vote, and then to the Senate. The Resolution would ask voters whether the Georgia Constitution should be amended to allow casino gambling, pari-mutuel betting and sports betting; and includes that if passed, each county would then have the final say on whether to allow the various forms of gambling in their county.
Senate Resolution 841, introduced back in Febuary, had nothing to do with casino gambling or horse racing. It was a Resolution “proposing an amendment to the Constitution so as to provide that the people of this state may petition the judiciary for declaratory relief from certain acts of this state or certain local governments or officers or employees thereof that violate the laws or Constitution of this state or the Constitution of the United States; to provide for related matters; to provide for the submission of this amendment for ratification or rejection; and for other purposes.”
By substituting new language, the Resolution now reads: “A RESOLUTION Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Georgia so as to provide for pari-mutuel betting, casino gambling, and sports betting in this state under certain circumstances; to provide for related matters; to provide for the submission of this amendment for ratification or rejection; and for other purposes.”
The ballot question would read: Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to authorize pari-mutuel betting, casino gambling, and sports betting in this state under certain circumstances?" All persons desiring to vote in favor of ratifying the proposed amendment shall vote "Yes." All persons desiring to vote against ratifying the proposed amendment shall vote "No." If such amendment shall be ratified as provided in said Paragraph of the Constitution, it shall become a part of the Constitution of this state.
In prior years, efforts were made by Stephens to remove local control, but it appears to be back in the language of the Resolution, for now.
Last week, a Senate committee approved House Bill 903 to authorize the Georgia Lottery to add online sports wagering, to add revenue to the HOPE scholarship.
A resolution is only the first step. The General Assembly would then have to amend the State Constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote of the House and the Senate.
The AJC has reported that their January 2020 poll showed that 64% of Georgia voters support casino gambling in the state.
Going back to 2016, as Stephens worked on various bills, it was reported that MGM wanted to apply for licenses for casinos in the Savannah area, in Downtown Atlanta and in the North Georgia mountains. A casino on I-95 near the Florida state line was also mentioned that year.