Legislation could bring gambling to Lake Lanier, but the idea will first face plenty of discussion.
Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, plans to introduce a constitutional amendment that would allow video casinos in areas that already draw tourists, with proceeds helping the state’s struggling HOPE scholarship.
“These are totally different from the ones you see in convenience stores, which are illegal. Called video lottery terminals, they look just like the ones you see in Las Vegas,” he said Thursday. “When you group a bunch together, they look like a casino. The idea is that it would provide another avenue of entertainment for high-traffic destination areas, and the money helps HOPE.”
The state constitution already recognizes one Special Entertainment Zone around the Underground Atlanta-Georgia Dome area. Stephens’ legislation would allow the state to create additional areas.
“It’s just like buying scratch-off cards or lottery tickets because it’s already hooked into the lottery system. It’s nothing more than another game,” he said. “It’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel. It’s been tried in other places, so it’s just a matter of moving, regulating and designating where they can be located.”
Stephens, chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, suggested areas such as Lake Lanier, Jekyll Island and Savannah’s Hutchinson Island, which houses the Georgia International Trade Center, upscale hotels and a marina for yachts and cruise ships.
“If there are cruise ships that allow gambling three miles off the coast, we want to give them the opportunity to get that entertainment while on land,” he said. “We want to help our tourists support HOPE. Without additional revenue, my grandchildren are not going to have the same HOPE that my children were able to have.”
The idea is a new one for Lake Lanier officials, noted Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“The board hasn’t even discussed the potential of casino gambling anywhere in our area,” she said Thursday. “If legislation starts to be presented, naturally a discussion with our own delegation of officials would be the first step.”
Entertainment zones would likely hit Atlanta and Savannah first, she said.
“If it became a big revenue stream for the state, it’s possible that people could look at our area, and then our officials and stakeholders would have an opportunity to weigh in before anything came to be,” she said. “All things are worth discussing, but I can’t say if we would support it at this time.”
Hall County’s delegation isn’t heavily considering the idea for now, said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville.
“Ron’s always thinking about new ideas for the Savannah area and revenue, and this would have a good base with the port there,” he said. “But an amendment takes 120 votes.”
The legislation’s success would likely depend on top state officials, he said.
“It’s based on what the leaders want, so support from the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker would determine whether it grabs momentum or not, and I’m not hearing much of that,” Rogers said. “We’re still trying to spend most of our time on the budget, and a lot (of bills) will carry over to next year so we can gather information while we’re out of session.”
Lawmakers are also facing pressure from Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, to support a constitutional amendment that would allow betting on horse races.
“That one has been beating on us for years,” Rogers said. “I know one of the governor’s No. 1 priorities is to prepare HOPE going forward, especially as we use the reserves, but what’s going to be passed, I do not know.”
Stephens plans to introduce the amendment late in the 2011 legislative session so he can contact the state Attorney General’s Office and allow local officials to consider the idea.
“It’ll be voted on next year anyway, but I want to get all the ducks in a row,” he said. “It has a lot of support in the Savannah area. I’ve had some negative comments saying we shouldn’t expand the lottery, but the truth is, you can’t be for HOPE and against the lottery. They are the same, as set up under the constitution.”