A powerful new ally of the casino industry huddled with Gov. Nathan Deal days before the start of the legislative session, part of a wave of pressure on Georgia’s politicians this year to allow a referendum that could legalize gambling.
Haley Barbour is a former Mississippi governor and ex-chair of the Republican National Committee with a long friendship with Deal. He is also a newly-registered Georgia lobbyist, after filling out paperwork in November – the day before the election – to represent a doctors’ group and for Wynn Resorts, a Nevada-based casino company.
Deal aides won’t say what the two Republicans spoke about during the 30-minute long meeting in the governor’s office on Jan. 5. But his top deputy, Chris Riley, said the two have a “longstanding relationship” that goes back to Deal’s days in the U.S. House.
The governor took a hard line against last year’s gambling proposal, saying he wouldn’t support legislation unless casino firms agreed to put at least 24 percent of their gross revenue into education. But his stance has softened somewhat this year.
He said in January that he won’t oppose legislation that would legalize gambling as long as it doesn’t “devastate” the state’s lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program. But he wouldn’t say whether this year’s version – which would tax gambling “resorts” at 20 percent – went far enough.
Barbour is among a half-dozen lobbyists boosting Wynn, a group that also includes former state Rep. Ed Lindsey. They are but a small fraction of the larger legion of pro-gambling lobbyists in the halls of the statehouse.
In all, about 40 lobbyists working for gambling firms are registered under the Gold Dome this year. Nearly two dozen work for MGM Resorts International – which has already pitched a $2 billion casino for downtown Atlanta.
The rest work for Las Vegas Sands, Penn National Gaming, Elite Casino Resorts, Boyd Gaming Corp. and a handful of other gambling firms.
Barbour also isn't the only high-powered advocate pushing the casino industry in person. Sheldon Adelson, the Republican mega-donor who runs Sands, also quietly met with Deal in 2015 to push a $2 billion resort his one-time deputy pledged would be an “architectural wonder.”