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Editorial: Is it time to roll the dice on casinos?
Georgians may favor legalized gambling, at least in theory, but it remains a long shot, for now
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State legislature

Read the bill: House Bill 677 on casino gambling

Are Georgians ready to gamble on allowing casinos to take root here?

The odds aren’t in favor right now, but based on recent history, it may be just a matter of time. The discussion underway in the General Assembly is whether Georgia should take a bite of the economic apple that serpent is offering.

A bill proposed in the state House by Savannah Rep. Ron Stephens would crack open the door to legalized casino gambling. It would allow local governments to set up referendums and let voters decide whether to allow casinos in their area. The state would be divided into five zones with a maximum of six casinos in each. Proceeds would generate fees of some $250 million a year for the state’s HOPE education funds.

On the surface, it’s just a more privatized version of what the state already does with the Georgia Lottery. That, too, is gambling, and feeds the HOPE chest, but is fully controlled by a state agency. Allowing casinos is a step beyond that only 18 states have so far taken (not counting those run by Indian tribes). It wasn’t long ago Nevada or Atlantic City were the lone options if you wanted to hit the blackjack tables on U.S. soil, but that has changed within a generation.

Developers looking to build casinos already are eyeing ripe real estate in the state, among them the Turner Field site in Atlanta for which Georgia State University ultimately won the bid. They’re waiting for legalization, of course, but they’re not going away any time soon. And neither is this issue.

Gov. Nathan Deal isn’t keen on legalizing gambling, and neither are most Republican leaders who control the legislature. But like many other matters tied to moral choices, they may be worn down over time. There isn’t a groundswell for it yet, but give it time.

Think about where this state has come in how it governs personal behavior in recent decades. In the not-too-distant memories of many, a majority of Georgia counties and municipalities were dry, with only big cities like Atlanta supporting liquor either by the drink or in a bag. That changed.

And until just a few years ago, even the wettest counties in Georgia weren’t able to sell packaged spirits on Sundays. That, too, changed.

At one time, adult clubs were confined to one tiny corner of Atlanta. Now they are found in the suburbs and along interstates statewide.

And before last year, medical use of marijuana was outlawed in Georgia. Not only was a bill passed last year easing that restriction, another is planned in this session to loosen those obstacles even further. Recreational use of the drug isn’t on the table here yet, but a few states have crossed that line and the idea is only likely to spread.

The spread of gambling is just as incremental. For years, Georgians were forced to cross state borders to buy lottery tickets until the early ’90s, when Gov. Zell Miller was able to pass Georgia’s lottery to fund the HOPE plan. In recent days, Georgians snapped up 22 million tickets at $2 a pop trying for the Powerball’s billion-dollar-plus jackpot.

Georgia’s population continues to grow and change both from those moving in from elsewhere and a younger, more diverse demographic less bound by the same moral parameters of previous generations. For better or worse, that’s the direction we’re heading, and casinos may be the next brick to tumble from that wall.

Recent polls show some 60 percent of Georgians in favor of legalized casino gambling to fund HOPE. Unless something happens to change their minds, it’s just a matter of time before that notion reaches enough state lawmakers to pass a bill. They may take the plunge, if only because a referendum that amends the state constitution gives legislators a bit of an escape hatch to avoid the wrath of those strongly opposed to the idea.

But is it a good idea? While many Georgians favor legalized casinos, some might sing a different tune when they learn one is planned for their neighborhoods. Even well-regulated casinos could bring crowds, traffic and crime to their areas.

 It’s one thing to take the libertarian tack and favor such freedom in the abstract, but those future casinos will have to be built somewhere. It’s not hard to forecast battles from those who take the NIMBY (not in my backyard) defense by saying roulette wheels and craps tables are fine so long as you take them to the other side of town.

Yet the attraction remains in using “sin taxes” to help fund critical needs rather than continuing to jack up taxes or fees most of us have no choice in paying. That payoff may be too hard to resist, particularly if lottery revenues can’t keep up with HOPE’s growing demands.

And the casino push has some pretty strong backing from wealthy developers who can bring in the best lobbyists to make their case and will go all-in until they win. The economic lure, public sentiment and big money interests can gather into a tide gambling opponents and state and community leaders can’t hold back forever.

Casino gambling isn’t going to pass this year’s legislature, and maybe not next year’s. But based on past trends, you can place a pretty sure bet it’s coming some time down the road.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson. 

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