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Our Views: A roll of the dice

Economic benefits of gambling are unclear, but final decision should be left up to voters

POSTED: December 4, 2011 1:00 a.m.

In the minds of some, Georgia may be succumbing to sinful temptation.

A few weeks ago, voters in 105 communities statewide, including Gainesville, Oakwood and Flowery Branch, approved Sunday alcohol sales. The referendum ended decades of "blue laws" that shuttered liquor stores and darkened beer and wine aisles in the supermarket on Sundays.

Because the change passed by such a wide margin in many areas, some have decided Georgians might be ready for the next step: legalized gambling. Neighboring states have opened up to casinos and pari-mutuel betting, to varying degrees. Should Georgia join that trend?

As the state's tourism industry adapts to tough economic times, visitors flock to the Gulf Coast and Carolina mountains to spend money. Casinos not only earn cash from their gambling tables, but the industry attracts restaurants, bars and other forms of entertainment that create new businesses and bring in tax dollars.

A study by the Georgia Lottery Corp. released last month claimed casinos in key locations, including Lake Lanier Islands, could bring in $1 billion a year in state revenue. At a time when government budgets are tight, it's an idea worth considering.

"Georgia, in particular the Atlanta metropolitan area, would be viewed by the gaming industry as one of the most prized opportunities in North America, largely because it has one of the largest, most affluent, untapped markets, with excellent air and highway access," the study said.

So yes, it's tempting from that approach. Though in fact, gambling has been legal in Georgia since 1993 when voters approved the state-run lottery. Each day, thousands plunk down their hard-earned dollars in games of chance, hoping those little white balls will drop some extra cash in their pockets.

"When the lottery was voted in, everybody questioned the lottery, and what happened?" developer Hal Barry told Associated Press. "This is something that can help the state of Georgia in a big way."

Is it in the state's best interest to take this step? Perhaps, but we need more information and careful consideration before we can say for sure.

While the gaming industry may lure more tourists or make those already here spend a little more, there also are downsides to consider.

First, any new money from an expanded gambling industry must be used wisely. Governments flush with new dollars can act like a kid with birthday money in a toy store. As with the lottery, all uses for this new cash stream need to be spelled out in a referendum so voters know how it will be spent. Ideally, such revenue should help the struggling HOPE Scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs, and not compete with the lottery or that mission.

Secondly, a state that allows gambling needs to regulate it closely to weed out corruption and racketeering. That means a gaming commission that is aggressive and fully staffed, and that takes state money. Gambling, for better or worse, is an industry attractive to organized crime, so keeping it clean is a fulltime job.

And keep in mind there is no guarantee of success. Alabama legalized horse track racing in the 1980s, something some Georgia leaders want to explore. But the racetrack in Birmingham failed miserably, and other tracks across the country are struggling. Starting a horse or dog track is a major investment that may not be returned if residents don't embrace a new sport.

Even if casino gambling were the choice, we wonder if it would yield the expected windfall while many are trying to make ends meet. Money spent by local residents on a slot machine or blackjack table might be diverted from rent or groceries.

One goal for legalization may be to tap into what is already being spent illegally. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 illegal video gambling machines operate statewide, along with Internet gambling, neither of which provide the state with tax revenue or fees.

The HOPE 20/20 Coalition, a citizens' advocacy group, believes allowing video lottery machines would boost state revenue, and adding them would not require a constitutional amendment, as would casinos. That might be a way to dip a toe in the waters of expanding the industry statewide, if it works well. Beyond that first small step, legalized gambling should not be approved without careful study.

Gov. Nathan Deal opposes legalized gambling, though on the campaign trail last year he said it should be looked at "with an open mind." We agree with his original position.

The impact of Sunday alcohol sales was largely known in advance, and may be negligible. But approving sale of a legal product an extra day and opening the door to a lucrative new vice are two different animals. Gambling is a greater unknown and needs a more intensive study before we can make an informed decision.

Such a study needs to assess not just the positive economic benefits but the negative side, such as crime, changing neighborhoods and concerns over gambling addictions. We need full information, not propaganda, to make the right choice.

Having said that, we also feel that Georgians should ultimately judge whether the industry should be allowed to set up shop. It will take a constitutional amendment, in the form of a voter referendum. Lawmakers may be hesitant to allow such a vote too soon, but it should not resist the will of the people once the facts are in.

Legislators and governors blocked votes on Sunday alcohol sales for years, defying what clearly was the people's desire to end the ban. When it comes time to decide whether to legalize gambling, it needs to be the voters' choice yet again. The people we elect to the state Capitol should get only one vote each, same as the rest of us.



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