Two influential individuals are monitoring twin bills by state Senator Brandon Beach and state Rep. Ron Stephens allowing a “destination resort” in Atlanta. Tilman Fertitta, Houston-based billionaire owner of Golden Nugget casinos, said he has a lobbyist at the Capitol. Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (l.) actually is a lobbyist for Wynn Resorts.
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Houston-based billionaire owner of Golden Nugget casinos, Tilman Fertitta, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he’s keeping an eye on proposed expanded gambling legislation in Georgia. He said the state is “a ripe market” for casinos and that easy access to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport makes the Atlanta market in particular especially attractive. Fertitta said he has hired lobbyists to represent his interests to state legislators.
Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, ex-chair of the Republican National Committee, recently registered as Georgia lobbyist for Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts. He’s one of a half-dozen lobbyists promoting. About 40 lobbyists are registered to work on behalf of gambling firms, including 24 for MGM Resorts International, which wants a $2 billion casino in downtown Atlanta. Others represent Las Vegas Sands, Penn National Gaming, Elite Casino Resorts, Boyd Gaming and others.
Two bills in the legislature would allow a statewide vote on casinos. Senate Bill 79, sponsored by state Senator Brandon Beach, and House Bill 158, sponsored by state Rep. Ron Stephens, would allow a “destination resort” in Atlanta and another in a smaller city. The Destination Resort Act also would create a five-member oversight commission modeled on Nevada.
Under the proposed legislation, the first casino license would go to a county with a population of more than 900,000. Only Atlanta and Fulton County qualify. The license would require a minimum investment of $2 billion. The second license would go to a county with a population of 250,000-900,000, which includes Savannah and Chatham County. Columbus and Augusta would not be considered. That license would require a $400,000 minimum investment.
State Rep. Richard Smith said, “I have been told the entire time I have been up here that you can’t do a bill around population. If you look at this, the 900,000 is clearly aimed at Atlanta, and Savannah is the only one that meets the 250,000 threshold. Columbus has clearly been written out of it, Macon has been written out and Augusta has been written out.” State Senator Josh McKoon agreed. “I have always understood that population bills are unconstitutional. But if it is valid, it would exclude Columbus. But I am skeptical of casino gaming measures, period.”
State Rep. Calvin Smyre added he would like the legislation to include up to four sites. “I don’t want to limit the opportunities for our state, especially when limiting those opportunities would exclude Columbus,” he said. Columbus entrepreneur Robert Wright Jr. has said he wants to develop a $200 million casino resort near Columbus if the state legalizes casino gambling. He added, “I don’t understand the rationale for the $400 million. From everything I see, $200 million to $250 million is more than adequate for a city the size of Columbus.”
Another aspect of the bill is that casino revenue would be taxed at 20 percent—nearly twice the typical casino industry rate of 12 percent. Fertitta said a 20 percent tax rate would be acceptable “if you limit the casinos to two or a small number. If you open it up then you better not have a high tax rate. That’s what you don’t want.” He noted Georgia could support several casinos, “but they’ll not be nice properties. Two to four licenses. You don’t need to have gaming everywhere.” He said unlike Mississippi where some casinos need repairs and updating, Georgia should follow the example of Louisiana, which “was smart in keeping a limited number of licenses and making people do deferred maintenance.”
Supporters said gambling proceeds would be used to boost the state’s struggling HOPE scholarship program, plus create jobs and direct revenue to local governments. Opponents said would casinos create crime and cause social problems. Last year Governor Nathan Deal said he would not support casino gambling legislation unless operators agreed to put at least 24 percent of their gross revenue into education. But last month he said he would not oppose legislation allowing casino gambling as long as it would not “devastate” the state’s lottery funded HOPE scholarship program. He has not commented on the current measure’s 20 percent tax requirement.
The 40-day session is scheduled to end March 30. Legislation has to pass either the House or the Senate and be sent to the other body by March 3 for it to have a chance to pass this session.