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Are Georgians willing to gamble on casinos for HOPE Scholarship?

Tommy Dortch is former state director for U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and chairman emeritus of 100 Black Men of America, Inc. In this piece, he endorses a ballot referendum to allow casino resorts in Georgia, saying the taxes generated will help ensure the future of the HOPE Scholarship.

Using the preservation of HOPE as the incentive, a strong push is underway to bring casino resorts to Georgia. However, the AJC reported that a study paid for by downtown Atlanta's top booster group raised questions about whether the resorts would be the cash cow proponents contend.

According to the AJC's J. Scott Trubey:

Four casino resorts in Georgia could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, but it is unclear how much would be new to the state and how much would be created by spending diverted from other parts of the economy, according to the report by hospitality consultants HLT Advisory and Horwath ATL.

The report concluded that the majority of visitors would be locals, not tourists, and that spending in casinos could "cannibalize" spending that might have gone to nearby restaurants, museums or concert halls and in turn undercut other state and local tax collections. The study was commissioned by Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown business coalition, in an attempt to provide independent data as lawmakers weigh the issue in the months ahead, said the group's CEO, A.J. Robinson.

With that background, here is Dortch's column in favor of casino resorts in Georgia:

By Tommy Dortch

Recent reports indicate the HOPE Scholarship is in trouble and, as it now stands, could very well run out of money in the coming years. The 2017 Georgia Assembly should act and give voters an opportunity to decide on a solution to funding HOPE.

That solution is to allow Georgians to decide for themselves whether destination casino resorts should be allowed in our state. The state of Georgia and metro Atlanta are losing out. Every day, Georgia citizens vote with their wallets when they travel to nearby casinos in Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina. It’s nearly impossible to miss the highway billboards beckoning us to casinos in these neighboring states. We’re facing not only a lost opportunity to generate taxes that support our children’s education but also a lost opportunity to create jobs and business opportunities for ourselves.

How much are we actually losing? Recent studies show that Georgia residents are now spending upwards of $600 million a year at these out-of-state casinos. Those are our HOPE dollars leaving the state. According to data from the American Gaming Association, the average casino in Mississippi has nine employees for every million dollars of casino revenue. That $600 million per year spent by Georgians at casinos in other states translates to a loss of more than 5,000 jobs right here.

A 2016 poll showed that 84 percent of Georgia voters want the chance to decide on the casino issue in a referendum. The poll was conducted in January by national polling organizations, McLaughlin & Associates and the Mellman Group. The same two companies found in a 2014 poll that 90 percent of Georgians have a favorable opinion of the HOPE Scholarship.

These two issues are linked: Recent legislation calling for a statewide referendum on allowing a limited number of destination casino resorts in Georgia requires the tax generated from these casinos to be put toward funding the HOPE Scholarship. An analysis released in early August provides data that shows that the general HOPE Scholarship fund could be out of money by the time today’s Pre-K student is in college.

We can stop that from happening, and chart a new course that preserves funding for our children’s education while providing an economic boom to Georgia’s economy that reaches far beyond that noble result.

If a high-quality destination casino resort were to be built in the Atlanta area, it would most assuredly create jobs for Georgians, who would then spend their money at shops, museums, movie theaters, and other local businesses. The projected investment of more than $1 billion in a destination casino resort in metro Atlanta would mean a significant number of construction jobs and other opportunities for Georgia.

Why do we want to continue investing in our neighbors? The resorts in Biloxi, Ms., are a popular destination for the Southeast region, especially Georgia residents. According to data from the Mississippi Gaming Commission, about a million Georgia residents go to casino resorts there every year, in addition to the more than 1.5 million visitors from Tennessee and South Carolina – states without resort gaming.

Why wouldn’t they prefer to come to a full-scale resort in metro Atlanta instead and experience everything else Georgia has to offer? Metro Atlanta’s tourism industry would benefit from a destination resort because it’s another world-class amenity to attract some of the 11 million international passengers who pass through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport every year, many of whom come from countries without destination casino resorts.

A higher-caliber destination resort will also draw lucrative conventions. Because of the entertainment offered in its resorts, Las Vegas is No. 1 in convention attendance every year. Atlanta currently competes with Orlando, Charlotte and Nashville for convention business. A destination resort in metro Atlanta can help solidify our place as the region’s premier convention destination.

If more people come to metro Atlanta and fewer people leave for North Carolina and beyond, the local economy benefits. And if the local economy benefits, we all win. But Georgia will continue losing unless the Georgia General Assembly passes a constitutional amendment giving the voters across the state an opportunity to decide if we want to invest in our communities, our economy and our future and solve the HOPE funding crisis with destination resorts.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.