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Will Georgia go for big casino payoff?

Mac Gordon

Mac Gordon

Mississippi needed casino gambling when the state Legislature made it legal in 1990. The law brought tax revenues that have reached about $400 million annually. Mississippi is now the nation's third largest gaming venue behind Nevada and New Jersey.

Those tax dollars help fund public education, public safety and prisons, mental health facilities and myriad other functions of state government. Strict casino licensing laws and a three-member commission of rich folks who cannot be bought by operators have combined to keep the industry lily clean.

Prior to gaming's arrival, the Mississippi Gulf Coast region around Biloxi and Gulfport had lost zeal as a tourist destination. Its recreation, hotel and food outlets had fallen into disrepair and unemployment was historically high. Today the area is replete with high-rise gambling halls and hotels, fine restaurants and quality golf courses that have attracted even the professional tours.

One developer said that Mississippi's decision to authorize casinos was "born more out of desperation than any ingenious plan." That's partly true: It took some late night, creative, secretive legislative maneuvering to get the law passed and most citizens were stunned to awake and discover gambling was suddenly legal in their state on a county-option basis. Efforts led by the Mississippi Baptist Convention to reverse the law since then have failed miserably.

About half of the 31 state-regulated casinos are along the Mississippi River on the state's western border. Their success stories don't match the Gulf Coast's but they have contributed greatly to jobs growth and tax coffers. The several tribal casinos are federally-supervised and the state receives no tax revenue from them. But, they bring in tourists aplenty.

Will Georgia follow Mississippi's lead -- as some other states have tried to do and failed, notably Louisiana -- and expand its gambling law beyond the lottery? That's a question state lawmakers will surely face in coming years. Some prominent Georgians have already spoken out against casinos, including the esteemed United Methodist preacher, the Rev. Creed Hinshaw of Savannah, in a recent opinion piece in The Albany Herald (April 27, "Georgia casino is a bad gamble.")

Hinshaw based his opposition on the apparently lousy job Georgia has done helping problem lottery players who continually lose dollars that could have paid the mortgage or bought bread and milk for their families.

The pastor said the lottery board has lured gamblers into thinking that buying the tickets is some strange sort of pleasurable activity. (Go to an auction like Alvin K. Brown's company puts on in downtown Blakely once a month. Many say it's the most fun a person can have in Early County on a Saturday night. I concur.)

Georgia, with almost four times as many people as Mississippi and vibrant industrial and retail sectors driving the economy, clearly does not need casino gaming like Mississippi in 1990. I say that despite the fact that the Georgia Lottery no longer pays for as many HOPE college grants as it once did.

I doubt we'll ever see very much casino gaming in Georgia. If you think the Rev. Hinshaw and some of his fellow Methodists are agin' it, just wait until the Georgia Baptist Convention gets stirred up over a few little games of chance.

Mac Gordon is a retired reporter who lives near Blakely and writes an occasional opinion column for The Albany Herald.