Charlie Harper: Gaming In Georgia Already A Settled Question
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017
One of the biggest battles developing in the Georgia General Assembly this year is over the revival of a proposal to bring full scale casino gaming to the Peach State. The measure, which has been revised to bring two “destination resort” casinos, requires a change to the state’s constitution, and thus two thirds each of the Georgia House and Senate.
There are many with religious reservations to allowing this to become the law of the state. The origins of their position should be respected. There are a small handful of ministers in the legislature - and a couple more members that should be. They’re not going to be found in the “yes” column if and when this measure comes to a vote. This is stipulated.
The reality is, however, that the question before the Georgia General Assembly is not a moral one, but one of missed opportunity and diminishing tax revenues. The moral question was answered by voters in November 1992 when a constitutional amendment was passed creating the Georgia Lottery Corporation. Almost 60 Billion has been wagered legally in the state of Georgia since that time, legally. It has all been done through a state sponsored monopoly.
Many wish to make a distinction between the two. That may be comforting for some that want to be for the HOPE scholarship and for Pre-K classes funded by the state’s gaming monopoly. The result, however, is that the Georgia Lottery Corp already functions like a casino. Rather than having two facilities designed and located to attract tourists and conventioneers, the Georgia Lottery is available at every corner convenience store.
Evidence that the Georgia Lottery is already operating as a casino can be found in a separate measure introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert of Athens, who wants to mandate the Lottery Corporation return to days when 35% of revenues were retained by the state for HOPE and Pre-K. Today, the lottery is returning just under 25%.
The reason for the drop isn’t that the Lottery Corporation is adding additional overhead. It’s that the marketing is aimed at instant win scratch off games. Scratch off games, in order to attract more customers and hook them with the good feeling of winning, have higher odds of winning. They pay out more often in order to secure returning customers.
Thus, in order for the Lottery Corporation to maximize profits, they need to get more people playing, and winning, scratch off games. The belief is the more people play, the more they will experience the feeling of winning, and they will keep playing until their investment is gone. It’s entertainment value.
Unlike the proposed destination resort casinos which will cater to higher end customers and business travelers, scratch off games are targeted to every day Georgians – many of whom probably have higher needs for their money than a quick fix of entertainment at the corner store. It’s hard to understand the opposition to private corporations operating casinos when the state already does so - but instead targets Georgia’s lowest income earners - with little or no objection to this practice.
The moral question for the state has and is settled. On the question of gambling, we’re more than a little pregnant. We instead have a 24-year-old child that has put $18 Billion into a trust fund for the state’s education.
Thus, instead of having a debate over a settled question, the one we should be having is how to capture the roughly $600M spent by Georgians per year at casinos in neighboring states. We should be asking if gaming is a necessary ingredient to bring back some of the conventions lost from Atlanta to other venues like Comdex in Las Vegas. We should be asking if training more than 10,000 Georgians to work gaming tables would be a new boost to the average pay of our hospitality industry. And we should be debating if the revenues added to the state coffers are best used to shore up the HOPE scholarship fund, provide means tested scholarships, and/or dedicate new monies to the state’s struggling rural healthcare institutions.
That’s the discussion we need to be having. The debate over the morality of gaming in Georgia has long since been settled, as an entire generation of HOPE funded college graduates can attest. Let’s at least honor the needs of the next generation of Georgians by having the proper debate at this time.
Commentary and opinion by Charlie Harper, Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.