By Baker Owens –
Three days after the Senate sponsor of the casino gambling bill, Brandon Beach (R- 21 Alpharetta), declared his bill dead, Rep. Ron Stephens (R- 164 Savannah) has a casino bill that will make an appearance in front of the House Regulated Industries Committee today.
Today also happens to be Crossover Day, meaning that in order for the bill to pass this session, it must make it out of committee and then head to the floor of the house for a vote before the end of the day. After last year’s push past midnight on the last day of the session, “end of the day” may be open to interpretation.
HB 158 is similar to the senate bill. It would authorize the licensing of up to two destination resorts and create a Georgia Gaming Commission. The Gaming Commission would consist of five members, three of whom would be appointed by the governor, one by the Lieutenant Governor and one by the Speaker of the House.
The bill has some bipartisanship to it – Reps. Calvin Smyre (D- 135 Columbus), Stacey Evans (D- 42 Smyrna) and Michele Henson (D- 86 Stone Mountain) are all co-sponsors – something rather rare in Georgia these days.
Among the groups opposing the current legislation is the Georgia Arts and Culture Venues Coalition. This group announced its formation just last week as the senate measure seemed to be picking up speed. According to their website, the group “is not taking a stand in support or opposition to casinos. Our members oppose the legislation’s criteria for casino gaming resorts to construct entertainment venues.” Their main problem with the destination resorts legislation is the ability of casinos to build performing arts facilities with the capacity to seat thousands and “rather than facing off on a level playing field, casinos are able to box out existing venues by paying far above market rates for top acts. They use these events as loss leaders to bring in customers – and then make their profits on gambling.”
The casino industry has been putting some big money into the Georgia legislature in recent years and not just the senate. Rep. Howard Maxwell (R- 17 Dallas) is the Chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill and he has received $6,000 in campaign contributions from three different casino companies – $3,000 from MGM Resorts in Las Vegas, $2,000 from Boyd Gaming Corp, also in Las Vegas, and $1,000 from Elite Casino Resorts in Riverside, Iowa. Brett Harrell (R- 106 Snellville) received $1,500 from MGM and $500 from Elite Casino Resorts.
Proponents of the bill point to the extra tax revenue that would be created and the opportunity to buffer some programs that are growing short of funding, including the popular Hope Scholarship. Beach’s bill would have directed at least two-thirds of funding to Hope. This bill similarly directs 70% of revenue towards the scholarship with the other 30% going to the Georgia Student Finance Commission for needs based scholarships.