City leaders ask state lawmakers to support the idea of casino gambling in Atlanta, suggesting it will bring millions of dollars to the region. Each year, state lawmakers reject the idea; fearing casinos will lead to more gambling addictions.
Casino supporters say those concerns are outweighed by the major financial troubles gripping the state and city. One Democratic state lawmaker, Roger Bruce of Atlanta, told the city’s elected officials last week that he’s planning to introduce legislation that could open the door to casinos in Georgia. “I think the time is right for ideas, and this is an idea,” Bruce said in an interview.
Bruce said his bill would let counties, cities and towns roll the dice on whether they want a casino in their jurisdiction through a voter referendum. The tax proceeds from the casinos would be divided between the local jurisdiction and the state. The money must be used for roads and other infrastructure projects, along with trauma centers.
House Speaker Pro-Tem Mark Burkhalter said voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment to allow gambling at Underground. That’s unlikely, he said, since most lawmakers in the Republican majority don’t support the idea, and a proposed constitutional amendment would have to win the approval of the Georgia General Assembly.
“There is maybe a handful in our [Republican] caucus who has entertained pari-mutuel gambling through horse racing and so forth,” Burkhalter said. “But the bills have never even gotten out of a subcommittee.” Burkhalter acknowledged Underground needs some help. “It’s an eyesore; it’s obviously not a draw to tourists or even residents of Atlanta.”
Atlanta has had two rounds of employee layoffs and service cuts this year and Mayor Shirley Franklin announced 10 furloughs earlier this month to deal with a projected budget shortfall of at least USD 50 million. Governor Sonny Perdue ordered state agencies to cut spending by 6 to manage a USD 1.6 billion shortfall.
City Council leaders have championed the idea of a casino in Atlanta for about 20 years, believing it would bring jackpot-size money to Georgia that could be used for public education or law enforcement.
A study completed last year by PFK Consulting found a casino could create nearly 11,000 jobs and fill tax coffers with about USD 135 million annually. “Everybody knowing how desperately government needs [the money],” said Atlanta Councilwoman Anne Fauver.
Bruce believes a legitimate case can be made for casinos when you consider the economic impact. He contends the state’s efforts to raise revenues, primarily through property and sales taxes, aren’t working. “What we’ve been doing has put us in a USD 2 billion deficit,” he said.
Ron Fennel, governmental affairs director for the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association, has heard the debate for years. Despite the past reluctance of state lawmakers, he said his industry would put down the welcome mat for people if a casino ever came to Atlanta. “We’ll invite them to come, spend their money, tell their friends and tell them to come back again.”