Georgia Lawmaker and Expanded Gaming Proponent Pushing for All-or-Nothing Gambling Referendum in 2020

Posted on: August 22, 2019, 09:30h. 

Last updated on: August 23, 2019, 12:14h.

As Georgia lawmakers come together to discuss how to increase revenues, one legislator wants to see voters decide whether the state should expand Georgia gambling or do away with it entirely.

Georgia state Rep. Ron Stephens wants to see the state offer casino and other types of gambling in order to fund college scholarships. He’s pushing for a referendum that would essentially let voters legalize all forms of gaming or none, which would end the state’s lottery. (Image: GateHouse News)

State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) told Thursday his proposal for an amendment to the state constitution would either allow all forms of gambling or none at all in Georgia. He added that substantial majorities of Republicans and Independents, regardless of how they feel about gambling, want the ability to vote on the matter in a referendum.

“For me, I want to lay the question on the table, basically to change the constitution to allow for gambling,” he said. “All types of gambling, if approved, or no gambling at all. That’s where we are. That’s what the public really needs to vote on is, if you’re for gambling, vote yes. If you would like for all gambling to go away, vote no.”

The earliest a referendum could hit the ballot would be in 2020.

Stephens, who has been in office since 1997, has long been a proponent for expanded gaming, and he said that public sentiment has changed as the state has grown in recent years. However, he admitted that the change in attitude has not happened as quickly in the Atlanta statehouse.

Now, though, Stephens, as the chair of the state House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism, may have an opportunity to push for an amendment. Earlier this month, Gov. Brian Kemp called on state agencies to review their budgets and propose how they can cut four percent this fiscal year, which will end on June 30, 2020, and six percent the following year.

“Thanks to years of strong, conservative leadership and pro-growth policies, our state’s economy is thriving,” Kemp said in a proclamation. “To secure an even brighter future for our state, we must continue to budget conservatively, spend wisely, and put Georgia taxpayers first.”

Shortly after Kemp called for cuts, legislative leaders formed committees to find ways to increase revenues. Stephens will also serve on the House Special Committee on Economic Growth, and one of the topics the panel almost certainly will discuss is gambling.

Restoring HOPE

Currently, the only gaming Georgia allows is charitable gaming and the state lottery. The lottery is used to fund HOPE Scholarships for the state’s college students. The scholarships used to cover full tuition and books for students who met certain criteria, However, now the scholarship amounts have decreased because of the population growth in the state.

Stephens said expanded gambling would allow for the state to restore HOPE scholarships to previous levels. It’s possible gaming revenues could also help fund Medicaid and other healthcare issues, he added.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Gov. Kemp has publicly expressed his opposition to expanded gambling in Georgia, but he would consider standing aside if a referendum stated that proceeds would benefit HOPE.

Still, not all of Rep. Stephens’s colleagues are convinced.

“While there would likely be some revenue increases due to gambling, this revenue would be more than offset by the increased costs to our state due to gambling addiction, sex trafficking, loss of jobs, less spending by those who gamble, small businesses closing, increased crime, and bankruptcies,” state Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) told the Journal-Constitution.

Creating ‘Destination Resorts’

If the gambling amendment passes through the Georgia legislature, which would require two-thirds approval from both the House and Senate, and the voters approve the referendum, Stephens said the state would license three casinos. And the veteran lawmaker gave a pretty vivid description for what a Georgia casino would look like.

They’re not really casinos anymore,” he said. “We’re calling ours destination resorts because casinos, in your mind you think of something that you see in some of these other states that are relatively small, and they’re nothing more than just slot machines and sometimes a hotel with fast food stores on the inside. That’s not what we want at all. We’re looking for a minimum of a $2 billion investment per location. The most locations in Georgia would be three.”

Stephens expects the casinos to create up to 10,000 jobs in the state. As far as locations go, those would be decided by a gaming commission that would review bids. He believes a neutral party, like the attorney general, should also be involved to minimize any potential corruption when it comes to awarding licenses and selecting locations.

Beyond casinos, the gambling referendum, if passed, would also open the door to sports betting, horse racing, and other types of wagering.

Stephens said he has a bill that’s already passed his committee from the past session, but has languished in the House Rules Committee. He said he’s willing to push that bill or support another, similar proposal.

“It all depends on what we hear from our members in the state of Georgia,” he said.