I attended the annual Southern Gaming Summit (SGS) inBiloxi, Miss., last month and have to say I came away with a very positive vibe about the region and its casino engine for the first time in quite awhile.
While there, I toured Scarlet Pearl, the Gulf Coast’s newest gaming resort, as well as MGM Park, the recently opened home of Biloxi Shuckers minor league baseball team that is located across the street from the Beau Rivage. Both properties were sleek and beautiful in their own way and, more importantly, a sign that infrastructure and tourism had improved enough to warrant major entertainment undertakings.
Sitting through sessions at SGS, I heard speaker after speaker talking about how gaming along the Gulf Coast has improved over the past year and a half, both in terms of revenue and visitation.
Indeed, the region’s gaming fortunes have revived to the point where a handful of southern states contemplated casino legalization in 2016, and while these acts were ultimately unsuccessful, Georgia and Alabama appear the two most likely jurisdictions to pass some form of expanded gaming in the near future, according to a panel presentation at SGS.
This past year, Georgia introduced a casino legalization bill to make up for a budget shortfall in the state’s funding for pre-k and secondary education. The final iteration of the measure called for the establishment of four casinos in the state, including two in the Atlanta Metro area, which would be taxed at 20 percent with all the proceeds going to education funding.
However, the measure failed to get support from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who is generally opposed to any gaming expansion in the state but would reportedly not stand in the way of a casino bill that taxed operators 25-35 percent for state education funds. For this and other reasons, the bill did not make it out of committee in the Georgia Assembly.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we will see [casino enabling legislation] again over the next couple of years,” said Bruce Bowers, senior public policy advisor for the firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. “The Georgia Assembly will revisit it for a variety of reasons including the economy in the state, the rising cost of secondary and post-secondary education and the size of Georgia as it relates to other markets.”
Meanwhile, the Alabama legislature was seriously considering legislation that would re-establish casino-style electronic bingo gaming machines at the state’s four racetracks, a lucrative job and tax revenue generator that was outlawed by the state in 2010 after six years of successful operation. The measure had strong support until it became apparent it gave a huge business advantage to the sole owner of the state’s two largest racetracks.
William G. Somerville, shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, believes the state legislature will continue to explore electronic gaming machines at racetracks, given the state’s history with the business, polls that show 60-80 percent of voters are in favor of casino or lottery wagering and a recent state study that estimated a casino and lottery bill could generate as much as $400 million a year for the cash-strapped state government.
However, such a bill is unlikely over the next year, as the state works its way through a corruption and ethics scandal that has ensnared Gov. Robert Bentley and other high-ranking state officials.
“Once the scandal is resolved, I think if a good bill is written—one that does not give someone a virtual monopoly on casino gaming in the state—it will be hard for legislators to oppose it, given the popularity of gaming in Alabama and the state’s ongoing need for funding,” Somerville said.
Who knows, maybe a future visit to SGS may entail some out-of-state trips to view the latest and greatest southern casinos.