But the bill by Rep. Cecily Hill, R-Kingsland, may run aground in court if anyone challenges its constitutionality.
Hill testified before the House Committee on State Planning & Community Affairs moments before the vote approving her proposal, House Bill 1011. She said it would help save the jobs of 85-100 people who work for the “Emerald Princess” that docks in Glynn County for day trips out beyond the state’s territorial waters where passengers can legally gamble. After a few hours, the onboard casino closes down for the trip back through the state’s waters to the dock.
“People are bored with the wait,” she said, telling the committee passengers would rather drive to Fernandina Beach, Fla., than tarry during the 45-60 minutes it takes to get 3 miles beyond the shore.
Her legislation would allow the ships to operate their casinos the moment the vessel is “preparing for transit from a dock.”
“They can’t do anything they’re not currently doing,” she said.
Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full House for consideration, it may have sprung a leak over constitutionality, according to Emory University law professor David J. Bederman.
That’s because when the state enacted a constitutional amendment to allow a government-run lottery for education, the sponsors made good on their promise to limit gambling. The constitution reads “all forms of pari-mutuel betting and casino gambling are hereby prohibited.”
Bederman said that prohibition can’t be overwritten by a simple law.
“I’ve never heard of a state saying ‘our laws only apply on state land and not on our lakes and waters,’” he said. “There seems to be a constitutional problem here. A state constitution applies with as much force on waters as it does on land.”
Hill said the issue of constitutionality never came up, either when she had legislative staff draft it or during consideration in a subcommittee. It wasn’t raised before Thursday’s committee vote either.
Legislation is pending in the House to amend the constitution to permit pari-mutuel betting. Hill, though, said she isn’t interested in expanding gambling in Georgia and that she opposes anyone using her bill to dock additional casino boats around the state, especially if they don’t even attempt to sail out of territorial waters.
“If they start doing that, I’ll be up here next year to repeal all this,” she told the committee.