Special Report: Jackpot or Bust

Special Report: Jackpot or Bust
Rep. Stephens (Source: WALB)
Rep. Stephens (Source: WALB)
Georgia's 'Gold Dome' (Source: WALB)
Georgia's 'Gold Dome' (Source: WALB)
Senator Fort (Source: WALB)
Senator Fort (Source: WALB)

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Georgia state lawmakers are proposing a constitutional amendment that they say could produce almost half a billion dollars of revenue for higher education.

The amendment would also legalize casinos throughout the state; an issue that some lawmakers strongly oppose.

Representative Ron Stephens, the chairman of the tourism and economic development committee, says the revenue, investment money, and jobs created by this venture make it a no-brainer. Others aren't totally sold yet.

It's a dream for many to see the word jackpot flash in a casino.

Some state lawmakers hope that soon can happen here in Georgia.

"We're not talking about these sleazy kind of casinos. We're talking about a massive tourism destination," said District 164 Representative Ron Stephens, a republican from Savannah.

Representative Stephens is authoring a bill, House Bill 677, which would legalize large casinos like this and bring them to cities across Georgia.

"It would create in just in one casino in Atlanta, 10,000 permanent jobs. It can have between $1 and $2 billion in investment," said Stephens.

According to the bill, all of the revenue will go towards education.

"It would generate enough money to fully fund the HOPE scholarship again for generations," said Stephens.

For some in the legislature, that's a sticking point.

"I truly will not be considering the bill for casinos, horse racing, at all, if we weren't totally committing the revenue to education," said District 153 Representative Darrel Ealum. "If we're just going to bring casinos and horse racing into Georgia because someone thinks it's a good idea--I wouldn't support that."

The effort is the latest by state lawmakers to keep money in the state.

Stephens says hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in neighboring states.

"That's our HOPE scholarship money, HOPE scholarship dollars, leaving our state 34 most of us believe it's time to give that an opportunity to stay here," said Stephens.

Stephens says the casinos aren't asking for tax incentives to build. They just want the ability to open shop.

"If this were any other economic development project, we would falling all over each other to try to make sure that we could land these projects," said Stephens.

"I don't think it's a good fiscal solution to the problems of the Georgia economy. I just don't think it's a good idea," said Senator Vincent Fort, a democrat representing the 39th district in Atlanta.

But for others, like Senator Fort, casinos are a bad idea.

"You have people who can least afford to gamble putting their money into casino just doesn't make sense to me," said Fort.

And, Senator Fort said, the money being spent at the casinos isn't new money to the state.

He argues the casino-goers would stop spending money elsewhere.

"It's just going to be a transfer of money from other places to the casinos," said Fort.

The bill's author says the casinos and convention centers would attract out of state visitors and turn these cities into major tourist destinations for folks all over the region.

"I think it's appealing to most people that the visitor can come in and invest their dollar in our students," said Stephens.

The bill will be a hotly discussed in coming days as crossover day nears.

Stephens hopes lawmakers approve the bill and let citizens decide on the prospect of casinos.

"Georgia is red-hot right now. The big players want to be in Georgia," said Stephens.

"I think everybody is very open to the concept. We're just more interested in details," said Ealum.

From small rooms to the big hall of the state legislature, it's an item that's sure to stir discussion under the gold dome.

Senator Fort said he's also skeptical of the idea that gambling could fully fund hope given recent increases in tuition.

"Are we going to use this money for the hope scholarship and then the board of regents, or the general assembly for that matter, cut the amount of money available for our colleges," said Senator Fort. "If we pump this money into it, will it just be a back door way to defund higher education. Even though we pump more money in the from door, it's going out the back door."

If the bill is passed by the house and senate and signed by the governor, voters would decide in November on whether to allow casinos in the state.

It requires a 2/3 vote to pass.

The bill allows for 6 casinos to be built in 5 geographically organized regions in Georgia. The original cities include Columbus, Savannah, Macon, and Atlanta, but Representative Stephens says no cities are excluded from potentially landing a casino.

"As long as that limited number of casinos that give them the protected area for them to operate, if we can stay within those boundaries, then there's no where we shouldn't examine to go," said Stephens. "It'll make an enormous about-face in their economic activity."

Stephens started drafting the bill two years ago. The state legislature legalized gambling in Georgia with the lottery in 1992. Revenue from that fully funded the HOPE scholarship and Pre-K.

After recent increases in tuition and a growing demand, the funding has dropped off.  Stephens projects $400 million a year in tax-based revenue for the state.

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