The ballots have been tabulated and Georgia’s voters have largely supported the idea of ending the prohibition on Sunday sales of beer, wine and liquor in package and grocery stores.
More than 80 percent of the cities and counties that held referendums on the issue Nov. 8 voted to legalize Sunday package sales. Just 21 communities voted against ending the prohibition.
The cities passing Sunday sales included Warner Robins, Perry and Centerville, which are all located in Houston County. Centerville also had one of the earliest effective dates for the alcohol sales.
Former governor Sonny Perdue, who is probably the best-known resident of Houston County, thwarted all attempts during his administration to end the Sunday sales ban by promising a veto.
It is ironic indeed that Perdue lives in a county where those sales were not only approved but will take effect earlier.
With such a strong show of support for ending the alcohol ban, the attention of politicians will turn to other activities that generate “sin tax” revenues for state and local governments: horse racing and casino gambling.
The wheels have already been set in motion.
Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, has been pushing for years to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would legalize pari-mutuel wagering on horse races. He’s the chairman of a committee studying the issue and held a hearing the day before the Sunday sales referendums.
Geisinger makes the argument that horse racing would bring more economic development to Georgia and revitalize the agriculture industry, which is still the state’s largest business.
“Expanding our state’s horse industry is a simple way to bring jobs to our state,” Geisinger said.
The leadership of the Georgia Lottery has been looking at the casino gambling issue, commissioning a study this year that says casinos stocked with video gambling machines in Atlanta, Savannah and Jekyll Island could generate more than $900 million annually in state revenues.
“Georgia, in particular the Atlanta metropolitan area, would be viewed by the gaming industry as one of the most prized opportunities in North America, largely because it has one of the largest, most affluent, untapped markets, with excellent air and highway access,” the study said.
Is it really possible that horse racing and gambling casinos would provide a huge pot of gold for a cash-starved state government? It’s difficult to get a reliable answer to that question.
Ray Newman, the chief lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, contested the economic development argument during that recent hearing by Geisinger’s committee. “There’s always over-promise and under-delivery on this issue,” Newman said.
Newman raised another point worth considering: the expansion of gambling activities in a state can be an invitation to political corruption.
We saw that happen in Alabama, where a group of state legislators and lobbyists were indicted on federal charges of conspiring to buy and sell votes for millions of dollars to get electronic bingo legalized. One state senator was allegedly offered $2 million for his vote on the electronic bingo legislation.
I’m not sure it would be a great idea to dangle that sort of temptation in front of Georgia’s lawmakers.
Gov. Nathan Deal has issued public statements opposing the expansion of gambling and has acted upon those statements, ordering GBI agents to shut down “Internet cafes” where patrons have been playing video gaming machines.
“Our state law prohibits gambling,” Deal said in August. “The code is black and white on this issue.”
Legislators can bypass the governor if they can round up enough votes. It would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the Georgia House and Senate to put constitutional amendments on the ballot related to horse racing or casino gambling. But once that two-thirds majority has been obtained, the governor could not veto the proposed amendment.
I don’t think I would bet any money just yet on the possibility of Georgia legislators adopting a casino gambling amendment, but the issue is being seriously considered.
As lawmakers become more desperate to find new sources of revenue to address budget shortages, they will be more likely to give it a try.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)