Rome City leaders target gambling
You can guess there’s illegal gambling going on, Rome City Commissioner (Georgia) Bill Collins said, when there’s a parking lot full of cars but no visible customers in the convenience store.
“They know to go to the back room for the machines,” Collins said. “It’s odd that the state is not paying more attention.”
City commissioners are pressing for more control over video gaming machines, which are licensed by the Georgia Lottery Corp. They asked local lawmakers for help during a meeting last week ahead of the 2018 General Assembly session slated to start in January.
The Legislature considered banning the machines in 2013, but ultimately decided on stricter regulation that includes a direct connection to the state lottery’s centralized accounting system. The information also can be cross-checked with reports to the Georgia Department of Revenue.
Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said complaints from municipalities are escalating but he hasn’t yet seen much legislative support for a change.
“I don’t think the system works, but I lost on that vote in the Senate,” Hufstetler said. “They knew there’s a lot of illegal activity, but the argument was the DOR would control it. It wasn’t a workable solution, and we’ve seen this around the state.”
The law limits prizes to store merchandise, fuel or lottery tickets — but there’s no dispute that cash is paid out in some places. The illegal payouts draw more players, which makes the legal machines more profitable for both the merchant and the state.
Mayor Jamie Doss noted an increase in crime around stores that keep large sums of money to pay winners under the table. And local governments own neither the power to license the machines nor a share of the revenue.
“Convenience stores pop up all over, and it seems like their primary purpose is putting these machines in,” Commissioner Craig McDaniel said. “We’re hearing some of them get $20,000 to $30,000 a month from the Lottery. The cities aren’t getting any of that.”
The Lottery Corp., established to help fund HOPE Scholarships and Pre-K education, keeps a share of the monthly proceeds from each machine and distributes the balance to the licensees. It also gets annually a $5,000 base license fee from the owner of each business with video gaming machines, plus $125 a machine, along with $125 per machine from the holder of the location license.
As it stands, however, there are no local reporting duties. City Manager Sammy Rich said allowing cities to require permits would help track the activity and enable them to address complaints from residents.
“We feel like we need to have some role in the regulation of our town,” City Clerk Joe Smith added.
But Hufstetler said that argument may be a hard sell, since the state already knows where the gaming machines are.
“It’s not that it’s an illegal machine. It’s being used illegally,” he said.
Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, said that, for now, the best suggestion to “clean up Rome” is to ask for a state investigation at the stores where cash payoffs are suspected.
“Illegal machines are absolutely the enemy of the DOR. They want to know,” Dempsey said. “The DOR would be glad to swoop in. You have an ally there.”
She and Hufstetler said they favor banning the machines but complaints to state lawmakers haven’t been loud enough to outweigh calls to keep them, as revenue-generators for businesses and schools.
City commissioners said they would continue trying to rally support through the Georgia Municipal Association, whose members are seeing the fallout in their communities as well..
“The families who can least afford to be impacted are the ones who are most affected,” McDaniel said.