Ron Stephens Backs Plan for 3 Georgia Casino Resorts

Georgia Casino Law Ron Stephens

Rep. Ron Stephens compared Georgia casinos to Disney World.

Georgia State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) is backing a plan for three multi-billion dollar casino-resorts for the state of Georgia. Rep. Stephens plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session to amend the Georgia connstitution in order to legalize casino gambling.

Stephens believes public opinon has changed in his state and voters would support land-based casinos. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution released a poll in 2017 which showed 56% of likely Georgia voters supports casinos.

State Rep. Ron Stephens compared Georgia casinos to the major attraction of Georgia’s next door neighbor, Florida. Stephens thinks land-based casinos will be to Georgia what Disney World is to Florida.

The longtime state rep said, “They’re going to be incredibly unique [in the state]. It will be nothing different than someone going to Disney World, but I want to see that in Georgia. It’s entertainment, the whole thing is entertainment.”

Previously, Ron Stephens backed casino bills in 2015, 2016, and 2017. None of those plans gained enough momentum for a floor vote, but the 2015 and 2016 proposals gained significant backing from Georgia’s media, prominent lawmakers, and a few outside backers.

Georgia Gambling Laws

Georgia is a conservative state and has not had significant change to its gambling laws since a lottery initiative legalized the Georgia State Lottery in 1992. At the time, the ballot iniatitive passed by a slim margin, though the Georgia Lottery has grown to become an institution in the state.

The Georgia Lottery funds the Hope Scholarship Progam, a successful postsecondary education fund which has helped a generation of Georgians attend college. That is why many proposals for Georgia casino gambling have discussed further funding for the Hope Scholarship Fund or other education programs.

In certain ways, the Georgia Lottery has given gambling a better reputation in the state. Over the past few years, the Georgia Lottery became one of the first US states to launch online ticket sales. The support of traditionally conservative states for online lotto sales is one of the reasons Sheldon Adelson’s anti-gambling legislation, Restore America’s Wire Act, failed to gain traction in the United States Congress. Such a bill would have undercut Georgia’s online lotto sales, too.

Georgia Casino Bill Would Pass

University of Georgia Professor of Political Science Charles Bullock told the BizNow a casino referendum would pass by a wide margin, if it appeared on a statewide Georgia ballot. Bullock said, “If that were to appear on the ballot again, it would pass overwhelmingly. There’s been a change probably toward gambling altogether [since then].”

American attitudes in general have changed in the past generation on the subject of gambling. Once seen as a sin or a vice, most Americans see it as a simple reality these days. The inception of the Internet Age and mobile smartphones have a lot to do with the perception. Most Americans carry an Android phone or iPhone and, due to offshore mobile casinos, can gamble via WiFi within a few seconds. In such an environment, laws to ban brick-and-mortar casinos in their home state make little sense.

1988 Indian Gaming Act

The expansion of land-based gambling since the 1990s also has had an impact. In 1986, the Cabazon tribe of California won a landmark US Supreme Court case which stated Native American tribes’ reservations are sovereign land. Sovereignty meant they could launch tribal casinos on those reservations. That SCOTUS decision led to the 1988 Indian Gambling Act, which set down the Indian gambling compact regulations.

These days, hundreds of tribal casinos exist in 28 US states. With the expansion of tribal casinos, many state lawmakers decided that it also made sense to legalize commercial casino developments, too.

Almost every state either has a land-based casino or is adjacent to a state with a land casino. Once again, people are within driving distance — often within 100 miles — of a gaming venue. Georgia casinos would keep that capital from flying out-of-state, while licensing commercial casino operators would allow Georgia’s government to tax the proceeds.

“It’s Entertainment”

If George Stephens is to successfully back Georgia casinos this time, he will get no argument from Las Vegas casino executives Sheldon Adelson and Jim Murren. The last time a Georgia casino bill received serious consideration, Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren made high-profile visits to Georgia to scout out possible casino locations. Atlanta and Athens were the focus of their searches at the time, though the plan would allow for additional casinos in outlying areas of Georgia.

Sheldon Adelson previously supported a South Florida casino, but pulled funding from his lobbyists in Florida to focus instead on a Georgia casino. Since then, the casino issue has been on the backburner in Georgia. Adelson and Murren are not the only ones in support. In 2014, billionaire casino magnate, restaranteur, and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta spoke of building a casino in Georgia.

2018 Georgia Casino Bill

When Georgia politicians last backed a casino bill, David Ralston was a key supporter. Proponents at the time sought legislation similar to the 2011 alcohol legalization effort. In that case, the Georgia legislature did not directly legalize and approve alcohol sales, but passed a law which allowed individual counties to legalize alcohol in their jurisdictions. In a casino referendum, local counties would have been allowed to pass pro-casino laws.

That idea proved to be a bridge too far last time. With 159 counties, that could have led to proliferation of casino gambling. It is unknown whether Rep. Ron Stephens’ 2018 casino referendum bill will follow the same pattern. Details at the moment remain sketchy.