Key senator backs horse-racing referendum

Georgia voters should decide whether betting on horse racing should be legal, the chairman of a Senate committee studying the issue said Tuesday, but there are many furlongs to be run before tracks could open in the state.

“I don’t think you can get more transparent than that,” Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, said after Tuesday’s inaugural meeting of the Study Committee on Horse Racing.

The panel heard testimony for nearly two hours, although in that time only one opponent signed up to speak. The committee cannot advance legislation, and took no votes, but its findings could influence the debate once lawmakers return to session in January.

Supporters have tried for years to gain traction on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow wagering on horse races. That focus has largely been in the House, however, where Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, has led efforts. His proposals, however, have never gotten a vote, largely over concerns expressed by Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and others that horse racing could lead to casino gambling and casinos have not been included in the discussion.

That is not an issue in this case, supporters of the Senate effort said Tuesday, because they do not want casino gambling, only pari-mutuel wagering on horse races.

Tom Schulte of the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition, a group formed to advocate for the referendum, said 43 states now allow pari-mutuel betting and 36 states have live horse racing. He quoted a Georgia State University study that estimated the state could gain $50 million in a year in revenues from the industry, plus additional payroll and sales taxes.

Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, asked Schulte to be sure those revenues would not include money from casino gambling.

“Obviously, what we’re hearing is that we want to do everything possible to not involve casino gambling in this proposition,” Davis said.

Schulte: “That’s a non-starter from our perspective.”

Further burnishing the referendum’s chances was a poll presented by Mark Rountree of Landmark Communications, a major local Republican pollster. Rountree said a poll he conducted in February for the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition found 72 percent of more than 1,000 active voters support holding a referendum.

But Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, who said he currently opposes the referendum, noted that the poll did not ask whether voters would support the referendum if horse racing bleeds revenue from the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. Nor did it ask if voters would support it if it led to other types of gambling.

Ligon and others worry that another form of legalized gambling would siphon money away from the Georgia Lottery and thereby take money from HOPE, which is already suffering losses.

Eric Cochling, vice president of the Georgia Family Council, the lone opponent to speak Tuesday, said his group has no problem with horses, breeders or jobs. Their concern, Cochling said, is that the horse-racing industry nationally has seen decreasing revenues and that has led to the need to expand gambling to prop up track revenues.

“Once you have the horse-racing industry, you then have an entire constituency built up,” Cochling said. “Those folks are the ones you’ll be hearing from next time for the legalization of gambling.”

The proposed referendum, which would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature to reach the 2014 ballot, is still considered a long shot. Ralston has not supported it. Gov. Nathan Deal has said he opposes expanding gambling in the state, although the governor’s signature is not required to put the question to voters.

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