One of the most anti-gambling states in the US, Georgia has taken its time in welcoming the industry across its borders, but with legislators beginning to consider a constitutional amendment, and sports teams and gaming giants urging the state to take action, The Peach State’s gambling landscape is looking ripe for change.
Both a house and a senate committee will weigh in on whether Georgia is ready to welcome the industry at the start of next year, with a long line of sector stakeholders forming outside the state’s door eager for a taste of that famous southern hospitality.
Boasting a motto of: “Wisdom. Justice. Moderation”, Georgia has always been hesitant at allowing the industry across its borders, evidenced by its complete lack of casino, horse racing and sports betting venues.
Kicking of the push to change that via a constitutional amendment, members of the house committee started a statewide “listening tour” across the state last month, with its members apparently looking most favorably at resort-style casinos and the many jobs they bring.
“Our intent is to ask the citizens, ‘Do you support inviting this industry to Georgia?’” Rep. Brett Harrell, a Snellville Republican, said of the tour. “If the answer is yes, how do you want us to enable this industry to come to Georgia so you all get your piece of the pie?”
Even the state’s Governor, Brian Kemp – a staunch opponent of gambling – has signaled he won’t stand in the way of popular opinion, explaining that “hardworking Georgians will have the ultimate say if a constitutional amendment is placed on the ballot” – in which case it wouldn’t require his signature anyway.
Instead, two-thirds of each chamber of the General Assembly must approve, followed by voters in a referendum. If it passes these two hurdles, lawmakers will have a smorgasbord of options on how to slice Georgia’s freshly baked industry, with several sectors already offering up their recipes for success.
For the casino sector, a local businessman, Bob Wright, has doubled down on his 2016 promise to bring a $200 million resort to Columbus should gambling be legalized, and Rep. Al Williams, while cautioning Georgians that not every city in the state will have a Las Vegas sized venue, has said that “Wynn and MGM are going to Atlanta”.
The latter has been eager to set up in the state capital for some time. During the formation of 2017’s casino bill, MGM pitched for a $2bn resort in what CEO Jim Murren called a “highly appealing market”, highlighting the fact that Georgians spend $600m a year at out-of-state casinos.
Unlike with the 2017 bill, Murren will be hoping the chance for a constitutional amendment gets recommended by the senate committee when it gives its verdict by 13 January. Until then, it is far too early to call how many venues, if any, will be on the table for operators, but even smaller cities in the state such as Valdosta, by the Florida border, can’t ignore the economic perks the industry would bring. “I’m not a proponent of gambling,” said Valdosta Mayor John Gayle.
“But I am a proponent of things that would benefit the state.” In a meeting the week before Christmas, Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, chairman of the Senate committee, asked committee members to prioritize the revenue and jobs that gaming and horse racing could generate.
“I have been very up front since the beginning that I wanted to create jobs with these two industries,” Beach told committee members, “especially the horse racing industry that I’ve been passionate about in building an equine industry.”
He did, however, caution the committee that sports betting is likely to bring less jobs. While most other states in the US have opened the door the sports betting in the last year, it would require a separate constitutional amendment to that of gaming and horse racing, and as such could be a step too far for both the General Assembly and voting Georgians.
The sector has, however, gained cheerleaders in the form of Atlanta’s four sports teams, with presidents of the Atlanta Hawks, the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United teams forming an alliance to put pressure on lawmakers and influence the public. Beach explained that, for the first time, sports franchises in the state have sent letters of support to legalize betting.
“Georgia is the 12th largest state for illegal wagering,” the letter states. “It is not going away. That is why we must ensure the industry is above-board and transparent.”
Estimating sports betting would generate $50 million in gross revenue for the state, the alliance of sports teams have said they wouldn’t install betting machines in their stadiums and that they wouldn’t make any money directly from the venture.
They envisage fans betting on their favourite teams via their mobile, creating stronger bonds between franchise and fan and increasing engagement in areas where the team can financially benefit.
While these teams have a big sway with the voting public should it come to a referendum, they have to persuade the house and senate committees first, and this will be difficult without the jobs that members of both committees are so keen on creating.
While there have been plenty of loud rumblings throughout 2019, there remains a long way to go before operators can truly satisfy Georgia’s hunger for gambling, and all the benefits it will bring.