Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Would Georgia win big with casinos? Neutral study suggests it wouldn't

You know what they say: The house always wins. It even sets the numbers to its liking before it has permission to open its doors.

Casino operators will be back at the Gold Dome next year, again seeking a constitutional amendment to legalize their business in Georgia. No one pumps nearly $325,000 into campaign accounts, as three gambling entities did between October and January, and walks away empty-handed after one failed shot.

They’ll tout impressive numbers about the wonders they’d do for our economy. Should you buy it?

Fortunately, you don’t have to. Wary of the effect casinos might have on downtown Atlanta’s businesses, Central Atlanta Progress commissioned its own economic study .

“We felt like we needed some information that wasn’t just all provided by the industry,” says the group’s president, A.J. Robinson. (Legislators statewide are now feigning surprise they didn’t think of this first.)

In summary, the picture isn’t quite so pretty.

The study, based on data from similar U.S. cities, found the industry is probably right about the potential size of Georgia’s gambling market. But it undermines the argument legalizing casinos is mostly about keeping Georgia gamblers within our borders and attracting new tourists.

“Really, the gaming industry wants to get into the pockets of the six million people who live in the Atlanta area,” Robinson says. “That’s not really part of their messaging, but it’s clear from the data.”

The study projects three-quarters of gambling revenues would come from Georgians. That’s logical: The industry isn’t itching to come here to cannibalize its nearby casinos, but because America has few if any larger untapped markets.

In fact, the study estimates less than 6 percent of the revenue for a metro Atlanta casino would come from out-of-state folks who wouldn’t have visited otherwise. The number would be much higher in Savannah, but between the two we could expect new visitors to spend only about $1 out of every $8 gambled.

Nor does the “keep ’em home” argument hold up. The study found Georgians spend at least $570 million a year at casinos in neighboring states. But even if we assume most of that money would flow to Georgia casinos, we’re talking about only a quarter of Georgia’s total gambling market.

That leaves almost two-thirds of potential gambling revenues. Robinson said more research is needed to determine how much of that spending now goes to other tourist attractions and retailers, but I think it’s safe to assume most people aren’t doing well enough to save up a Strategic Gambling Reserve. More likely, other businesses will lose much of that $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion.

Here, we get to one of the rubs in this whole matter. From a purely revenue-hungry standpoint, the state might be glad for this money to be taxed at the proposed rate of 20 percent rather than its sales tax rate of 4 percent. But local governments might not come out so well, and Robinson says the industry has spent far less time working with city leaders than with state legislators.

Yep. The (state)house always wins.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.