Legalized gambling still work in progress for General Assembly

ATLANTA – Sagging state tax revenues are breathing new life into longstanding efforts in the General Assembly to legalize gambling in Georgia.

But with a little more than three weeks left before lawmakers convene for the 2020 session, the most passionate legislative backers of bringing casinos and horse racing to the Peach State haven’t decided whether to add sports betting to the mix or whether to combine all of the gambling proposals into one package or tackle them separately.

“I do think there’s momentum for something to happen this session,” state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, said last Thursday after the final meeting of a Senate study committee he chaired that held several hearings on legalizing gambling in its various forms. “We need further deliberation.”

Beach’s committee adopted a 13-page report at its final meeting summarizing the hearings it held last summer and fall to listen to supporters and opponents of legalized gambling. But it stopped short of adopting recommendations for the full Senate.

On the other side of the Capitol, a special committee the House of Representatives formed to look for new revenue sources for the state – primarily but not limited to legalized gambling – also has yet to reach any conclusions.

Beach and Georgia Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, have been prime movers behind efforts to pass a constitutional amendment legalizing gambling in Georgia that go back a half dozen years. Such constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority in the Georgia House and Senate and ratification in a statewide voter referendum.

Stephens has sponsored legislation calling for several proposed “destination” resorts to be built across the state, one in metro Atlanta and several others elsewhere in Georgia. While the projects would feature casinos, they also would include mixed-use development amenities such as shops, hotels and restaurants.

Backers of two specific casinos proposals pitched them to the two legislative committees. One would be built adjacent to the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, while the other is the brainchild of Columbus entrepreneur Bob Wright, who wants to build a casino resort along the Chattahoochee River between Uptown Columbus and Fort Benning.

“There’s been substantial development along the river,” Wright told members of the House committee Dec. 11 in Columbus. “Our goal is to continue that development in an area of Columbus that needs a lot of help. … It really needs an economic catalyst.”

Beach has been the main driving force behind legislation to legalize pari-mutuel betting on horse racing. He has pitched the proposal as a way to generate jobs in rural Georgia by creating an equine industry that would foster hay and breeding farms.

Sports betting is the newest arrival of the three. It wasn’t an option until May of last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that effectively banned commercial sports betting in most states.

Atlanta’s professional sports teams – the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Atlanta United – have come out publicly in favor of legalizing sports betting as a way to gin up fan interest.

But Beach said some lawmakers are hesitant to take the plunge into sports betting because it doesn’t promise to generate much economic impact for the state.

Any sports betting bill Georgia lawmakers pass likely would be modeled after Tennessee, which has legalized online betting on sports. Unlike casinos and horse tracks, online betting doesn’t require construction of any jobs-producing entertainment facilities.

“It doesn’t create a lot of jobs,” Beach said. “I want to create jobs and industry.”

Another issue yet to be decided is how to craft legalized gambling legislation. Past efforts to get casinos and/or horse racing through the General Assembly have been taken up separately and have failed.

Stephens said he’d like to see a constitutional amendment that combines all forms of legalized gambling.

“If we’re going to amend the constitution, we ought to look at it holistically rather than picking and choosing,” he said.

While Stephens said House leaders are on board with a combined measure, Beach said senators have yet to decide.

Another potential sticking point is deciding how the state would use the tax revenue legalized gambling would generate.

Proceeds from the Georgia Lottery go toward the state’s popular HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs. But House Republican leaders are expected to push for dedicating some of the tax money to health care.

Stephens said the Georgia Medicaid program will need an influx of state funding if it is to pay for the expansion of coverage envisioned in a federal waiver request lawmakers have authorized Gov. Brian Kemp to pursue.

Even without an expansion, the state’s existing program needs help simply to keep pace with enrollment growth, Stephens said.

“We’ve had to backfill $200 million to $300 million every year,” he said.

Beach said the Senate would prefer to limit the distribution of gambling revenue to education but would be willing to consider health care as well.

Legalized gambling has been getting pushback on two fronts. Representatives of existing entertainment venues across Georgia argue casino resorts could corner the market on both performing artists and the audiences they would attract.

“A casino in Savannah or Columbus could affect smaller venues,” said Heather Stanley, managing director of the Rylander Theatre in Americus. “Smaller venues that could get pushed out are economic drivers in their communities.”

Advocates for faith-based groups have opposed all forms of legalized gambling as unhealthy for society.

“Even the industry acknowledges there are people who become problem gamblers,” said Virginia Galloway, regional field director for the Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition. “As we expand the market, that creates new gamblers. … They’re not only ruining their lives but the lives of many others around them.”

Galloway dismisses the argument that legislative passage of legalized gambling is simply the General Assembly giving the people the right to vote on the issue. She said gambling opponents lack the resources to fight deep-pocketed gambling interests in the advertising battle for votes.

But lawmakers have consistently used that argument to justify supporting a gambling constitutional amendment and passing the decision on to Georgians.

Where the General Assembly stands on legalized gambling should start to become clear soon. Stephens’ House committee is planning a final meeting early next month just before the start of the legislative session.

Beach said the Senate plans to take a position just after lawmakers arrive under the Gold Dome.

“The first week of the session, we’ll know where we’re going,” he said.

Georgia PSC OKs higher rates for Atlanta Gas Light

ATLANTA – Georgia energy regulators gave Atlanta Gas Light (AGL) a $65 million rate increase Thursday while requiring the utility to make a series of improvements to customer service.

The state Public Service Commission (PSC) voted unanimously to reduce the $90 million rate hike AGL requested last June. Commissioners also trimmed the profit margin AGL had proposed from 10.75% to 10.25%.

“I’m pleased with what was accomplished today,” said Commissioner Chuck Eaton, chairman of the PSC’s Energy Committee, who crafted the motion the commission approved. “It balances increased federal regulations, the capital investment required from a growing Georgia economy and ensures the company will make needed service improvements that customers will notice.”

AGL’s first rate increase since 2010 will raise the typical residential customer’s monthly bill by 4%, or $2.54, starting next month.

AGL officials said they need the money to cover $744 million in investments the utility is making to replace old pipelines, add new transmission lines and undertake an unprecedented expansion into rural parts of Georgia.

“These increases have been driven by aggressive investment in our distribution system,” Robert Highsmith, a lawyer representing AGL, told members of the Energy Committee earlier this week. “Our system is stronger, safer, more reliable and poised for growth.”

“We are mindful of the impact any increase can have on customers with low or fixed incomes,” AGL President Bryan Batson added. “Fortunately, thanks to today’s lower natural gas prices, consumers are still paying on average $250 less on their total natural gas bill than even 10 years ago.”

Eaton’s motion will require AGL to respond to gas leaks in 25 minutes or fewer, increase the percentage of appointments provided within a four-hour window from 40% to 80% and increase by 25% “evening” appointments, which occur between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Those were among service improvements recommended by the gas marketing companies that pay fees to AGL to provide and maintain gas pipelines and other infrastructure.

Commissioner Tricia Pridemore said she voted for the rate increase because of AGL’s agreement to improve service. But she criticized marketers for not fighting hard enough for even more service improvements while admonishing AGL’s presentation of its case for higher rates.

“You’ve gotten $15 million more than you should,” she said. “Your rate case proposal was weak and lacked detail. … Your next effort needs much improvement.”

Georgia unemployment hits record low in November

ATLANTA – Georgia’s unemployment rate fell to 3.3% last month, the lowest since the federal government began keeping records in 1976.

The Peach State also set a jobs record in November – 4.64 million jobs – while the number of employed Georgians also hit an all-time high of 4.96 million.

“I can’t recall us ever having a better month,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said. “It’s nice to see this at the end of the year. I think we are going to continue to see Georgia move in the right direction.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said the strong numbers are a sign the conservative agenda he and his Republican allies in the General Assembly have embraced is working.

“To keep Georgia the best place to live, work and raise a family, we must support our small businesses, recruit projects of regional significance to our rural communities and dismantle criminal street gangs so our families are safe from harm,” he said.

Georgia added 6,500 jobs last month, up 69,000 from November of last year.

Three job sectors added the most jobs, led by trade/transportation/utilities with 3,200 jobs. Education/health services was close behind with 3,100 jobs added. The construction sector added 2,300 jobs.

“We have seen the labor force start growing again, but it’s still not where I want it to be,” Butler said. “We need more individuals in the workforce to take all the jobs we have open.”

Georgia’s November unemployment rate was slightly below the nation’s, which fell 0.1% to 3.5%.

Georgia’s chief lawyer praises overturning of Obamacare mandate

ATLANTA – Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr is praising a federal appellate court decision tossing out a key provision in the Affordable Care Act.

The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals Wednesday ruled unconstitutional the so-called “individuate mandate” requiring most Americans to have health insurance coverage or pay a penalty.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the individual mandate congressional Democrats had adopted two years earlier by classifying the penalty requirement for those who don’t comply as a form of taxation. However, two members of the three-judge appellate panel declared the mandate no longer can be considered a tax because the now-Republican Congress has since abolished the penalty.

Georgia is among more than a dozen states led by Republican governors that have sued in federal court to block what is commonly referred to as Obamacare.

“Once again, the courts have agreed with what we already knew – the cornerstone of Obamacare is unconstitutional,” Carr said following the ruling. “Now, we need to get back to work and do it the right way. Congress, the states and the private sector must seize this great opportunity to fix the mess created by Obamacare and do right by the American people.”

President Donald Trump has led efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act but has been unable to get the measure through Congress.

Meanwhile, the court challenge is not over. While ruling against the individual mandate, the appellate sent the overall case back to a lower court to decide whether to uphold the law’s other provisions.

Also, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who heads a coalition of states that support the law, is vowing to appeal the New Orleans ruling to the Supreme Court.

Emergency court ruling clears path for voter purge

Brad Raffensperger

ATLANTA – A federal judge is letting Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger move forward with a plan to purge 309,000 voters listed inactive from the state’s rolls.

But an emergency ruling U.S. District Judge Steve Jones issued on Monday leaves the door open for restoring at least some of those Georgians’ voting rights following a court hearing set for Thursday.

Fair Fight Action, a voting rights organization launched by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams following her narrow loss to Republican Brian Kemp filed a lawsuit to block the state’s “use-it-or-lose it” legal stance on purging the voter rolls.

“Georgians should not lose their right to vote simply because they have not expressed that right in recent elections,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action. “Georgia’s practice of removing voters who have declined to participate in recent elections violates the United States Constitution.”

The case involves 120,000 Georgians who haven’t voted since 2012 and have not responded to letters from the secretary of state’s office and 189,000 others who have moved away from addresses the state has on file.

Georgia Democrats have long complained about voter purges instigated by Republican secretaries of state. More than 500,000 voters were taken off the rolls during the summer of 2017 in the largest voter purge in U.S. history.

“Proper list maintenance is not only required by longstanding laws but is also important to maintaining the integrity and smooth functioning of elections,” Raffensperger said following Jones’ ruling. “Georgia has registered nearly a half-million voters since the last election, clear proof that we are doing things to make it easy for people to vote.”

Fair Fight Action also charges Raffensperger with violating an elections law Republican legislative leaders pushed through the General Assembly last March, which lengthens the time voters can go without casting a ballot before being removed from the rolls from three years to five. The comprehensive measure also provides for the state’s switch to new touch-screen voting machines equipped with a paper backup.

While Fair Fight Action argued the new law should be applied retroactively to inactive voters, a lawyer for the secretary of state’s office said that was not the state’s intention.