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State lawmakers hear Georgia casino pros, cons in Savannah

State legislators met Monday in Savannah to talk gambling.

In a nearly seven-hour meeting at Armstrong State University, Georgia House and Senate members of study committees on preservation of the HOPE scholarship heard from proponents and opponents of building casinos and expansion of other gambling endeavors.

Right now, the scholarship program — which sends academically qualifying students to state colleges — is funded by the Georgia lottery. But it’s having trouble keeping up with demand.

“We’re at 71 percent right now and falling,” said state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah. “… We’ve already cut out books and fees and that kind of stuff. Our best and our brightest are staying home, and the revenues are flat.”

As one might imagine, most opponents raised moral issues and concerns of addictive behavior.

“For the record, I was in church yesterday morning,” Hard Rock International CEO James Allen told the audience.

He and other gambling proponents hawked the idea of job creation and corporate investment in several key areas of the state.

“You can attract the best gaming companies in the world,” Allen said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The committees have held two other hearings in Atlanta, where casino development has been pushed, including a $1 billion investment in the city’s downtown area proposed by MGM Resorts International. Stephens said there will likely be one more hearing this year before recommendations are made to the House and Senate.

Gov. Nathan Deal, however, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that he will openly oppose the current gambling-expansion efforts being pushed in the state Capitol.

John Kindt, a professor emeritus of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois, was one of those who spoke at the hearing. In a column published last week in the Savannah Morning News, Kindt said that lawmakers in Georgia have “failed to open their eyes or their testimony beyond the propaganda promoted by the gaming industry.”

One thing people ought to worry about, Kindt wrote, is an increase in crime around gambling facilities.

That’s a theme the Rev. Dale Montgomery of Savannah River Baptist Church in Port Wentworth drew on twice during an appeal Monday.

“Crime in Savannah — it doesn’t need any help,” Montgomery said.

Attorney Kelly Duncan of Jones Walker, however, said Monday such concerns are “overstated.” The firm claims its gaming practice is the largest in the southeast.

Also heard was an appeal by John Damico, who represents the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition, who said he was tired of spending money on horse races outside the state.

During the closing days of 2015’s legislative session, Stephens proposed amending Georgia’s constitution to allow six casinos with a cap on how many can be in any area. Lawmakers also want to cap the profit gambling companies can make off establishments, he said.

While the larger investors are focusing on metro Atlanta, he said, smaller companies are eyeing the coast. The Savannah and St Marys areas are attractive because of their proximity to South Carolina and Jacksonville, Fla., he said.

“All of the smaller ones are looking for a tourism destination market,” Stephens said.

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