Galis: Don't risk the future of Jekyll

Athens Banner Herald
February 20, 2011

Jekyll Island, on the Georgia coast, is under assault again - this time from state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah.

According to a Feb. 11 Morris News Service story, Stephens plans to introduce a proposed state constitutional amendment, which would require voter approval, that would permit areas of the state that are already tourist destinations to be designated Special Entertainment Zones featuring casino gambling.

The state constitution already recognizes one such zone around the Underground Atlanta area, and Stephens helpfully suggests Jekyll Island, Lake Lanier and Hutchinson Island, across the Savannah River from downtown Savannah, as other candidates. The casinos would offer Georgia Lottery games that fund the HOPE collegiate scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs.

Stephens may be all about support for education in Georgia. But it's hard for me to believe his initiative really has anything to do with HOPE and pre-kindergarten.

My suspicion is it's more a matter of the gambling industry targeting Georgia and recognizing that the combination of a popular but cash-strapped program and pliant legislators is just the ticket to a foothold here. I say that for several reasons.

For one, Stephens is reported to be holding off until late in the legislative session to introduce his measure. But we all know what happens in the waning days of the session. Bills that have piled up by that time suddenly have to be disposed of in the legislative equivalent of speed dating, with the result that measures get enacted or left to die without careful consideration. In particular, introducing bills late in a session forecloses the opportunity for opponents to be heard. Since Stephens' initiative would be a constitutional amendment, less than thorough consideration is a distinct possibility since legislators could deflect responsibility for it onto the state's voters.

For another, Stephens' effort comes on the heels of other initiatives to extend to local communities the option of permitting pari-mutuel gambling. Like the Stephens plan, House Resolution 182 calls for the income from betting on horse races to be paid - you guessed it - to HOPE, the pre-kindergarten program and trauma centers.

For yet another, this flurry of interest in legalizing casino gambling and horse racing as a way to shore up HOPE coincides with legislators' floating a wealth of sensible suggestions for solving HOPE's funding problems, which, according to one state senator, aren't entirely due to lagging lottery ticket sales, rising tuition at the state's colleges and technical schools, or any of the other factors that are being trotted out to explain the shortfall.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, confessed in a recent interview that the HOPE scholarship has become more and more generous over the years because officeholders of both parties used broader coverage to curry favor with voters. So what the gambling interests are banking on is that legislators will prefer expanding the industry's opportunities here to dialing back the HOPE scholarship.

If I had any doubt the gambling industry is salivating at the prospect of operating in Georgia, it was dispelled by a comment posted to by Terry Goodwin, the site's staff editor. Among other things, he urges Georgia legislators to "move quickly" on this initiative because Florida is considering a plan to bring "Las Vegas-style casino resorts" to the state.

I've always had reservations about funding such a central government responsibility as education through gambling, but I have no moral qualms about gambling as such. If people find it entertaining to enrich the gaming industry by risking their money against breathtakingly unfavorable odds, I'm fine with that. But if we're going this route, immense care must be taken to put the Special Entertainment Zones in the right places. If Stephens wants to invite casinos to his backyard, it wouldn't be a bad fit - Savannah's River Street is that city's version of Underground Atlanta.

But Lake Lanier and Jekyll Island are worlds apart from Underground Atlanta. They're prime family vacation destinations that happen also to host meetings and conventions. Casino gambling is adult entertainment that doesn't belong at either one. Jekyll Island in particular, after an enormous amount of controversy and upheaval, looks like it's finally taking shape as a restorative natural haven from the stresses of everyday life for Georgia families. If people finding themselves in Glynn County have to get their betting rush, the good ship Emerald Princess sailing from Brunswick will be happy to separate them from their money. But leave Jekyll Island alone.

• Leon Galis, a retiree living in Athens, is a frequent contributor to the Banner-Herald's editorial page.

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, February 20, 2011.