In the midst of a nostalgic return visit to my favorite casino, the original Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, to say bon voyage and farewell, before a re-branding by new owner, billionaire Richard Branson, I could not help but notice more than a few changes in the adult, gaming mecca of Lost Wages from the high rolling 90's and early 2000s, to the Vegas of today. And while 'what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,' may remain among the most successful tourism destination marketing campaigns in history, the pains of competition elsewhere are evident, despite the presence of construction cranes and ever present change on and off the Vegas strip.
Metro Atlanta is now virtually the only top ten population center in the nation (8th largest), not within a two hour drive of a major gaming destination. Casino, sports book and parimutuel betting surround us in Alabama (Indian casino in Wetumpka and Greyhound racing in Montgomery), Tennessee (Tunica is technically in Mississippi, just outside of Memphis), North Carolina (Harrah's), Florida (Hard Rock Casino's in Tampa and Hollywood as well as Greyhound racing and Jai Lai) , and not to mention the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At this point only South Carolina remains truly an island apart from the entire gaming industry, and whether you like it or not, Georgia is leaving tourism and hospitality money on the table.
Georgia lottery sales now annually exceed $1-billion, contributing roughly $1-million per day towards HOPE scholarships and pre-kindergarten funding. As of 2018, more than 1.8 million Georgians have received HOPE scholarship assistance to attend a college or university.
And as successful as HOPE, Georgia Pre-K and our lottery have become, demand will again eventually out-strip the revenue supply and a re-tooling or program benefits scale-back will be required, as was overseen by then Governor Nathan Deal during his first term. And in most every state where gaming has become available, there has been a substantial and commensurate boost in tourism, hospitality and related state/local sales/hotel/motel tax revenues. Gaming may not always be the primary draw, but it's a solid contributor to the mix.
As Thomas Jefferson staved off bankruptcy in part with personal lotteries and repeatedly stated, "The best tax is the lottery, as it paid only by the willing."
Arguments can and will be made about the evils of gaming, addiction to gambling and the related vice it may attract. Ammunition for this track is certainly found in places like Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the lines between casino opulence/wealth and abject poverty are as clear and demarcated as the U.S. border with Tijuana, Mexico. But if you subtract casinos from Atlantic City, all you will have left is the abject poverty.
Georgia tourism has a lot to offer and markets like Savannah and Georgia's Golden Isles have already found their sweet spots, but those two coastal tourism hot spots also already have limited gaming in the form of a charter casino line, the Emerald Princess Casino Cruise, which navigates the Jekyll and Savannah Rivers, as well as Georgia's inter-coastal waterways, and when out on the Atlantic and in international waters, offers several hours of daily casino gambling. And perhaps not surprisingly, the St. Simons Village and Jekyll Island causeway, where these charter cruise ships disembark, have yet to become Sodom, or Gomorrah.
Recent polling is limited, but more recent samplings have found support for a vote on expanding gaming (with results varying for sports book, parimutuel or casino gaming), as high as the low 70 percentiles among likely voters. And placing this choice, and potential Constitutional amendment in the hands of voters is always considered a potentially less harmful choice for Georgia legislators residing in more conservative districts. Governor Nathan Deal quietly opposed any expansion through the end of his second term. Governor Brian Kemp remains personally opposed, but has publicly stated on several occasions, that he would make no efforts to block or veto a public vote on the question.
Georgia has spent most of the past decade in budget high cotton, with the last two years allowing for record spending, north of $25-billion. However for Governor Kemp's second legislative session, the spending brakes are being applied, cuts of 4 percent have been requested for the upcoming budget and 6 percent more for the fiscal year which follows. When state agencies and the constituencies which they serve start to feel that belt tightening, around summertime of 2020 and during General Primary voting season, many incumbents may wish they gave more thought to a possible referendum to draw out voters to the polls in November of 2020.
If Georgia is to remain a low-tax, high-growth state, attractive to industry, retirees and those with accumulated wealth, it will need to establish additional reliable revenue streams. As our oil and gas futures are quite limited, other than off the coast, placing bets on gaming seems a logical choice as part of any future funding mix. And while I know for many, all bets are still off...for me at least, its finally time to slide some chips out onto the table. Good luck to you.