Exercise rider Jose Contreras rides Marley’s Freedom during morning workouts for the Breeders Cup horse races at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Photo: Darron Cummings
Photo: Darron Cummings

Proposal to allow horse racing in Georgia clears Senate panel

Georgia has taken a step toward allowing horse racing in the state.

A Senate panel on Wednesday gave approval to a bill that would allow up to three horse-racing tracks in Georgia.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Brandon Beach, said Wednesday’s 5-2 vote was the first time the proposal has cleared a Senate committee.

“It’s a big step,” the Alpharetta Republican said. “I feel real good about it.”

Beach, who is running for the 6th Congressional District seat, said he envisions a racetrack with a mix of uses similar to the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park that would be a boon for the economy in Middle and South Georgia.

Beach proposed legislation in two parts.

Senate Resolution 84 would put a question on an upcoming ballot asking Georgia voters whether betting on horse racing should be legal. Senate Bill 45 would create a Georgia Horse Racing Commission that would be tasked with approving up to three licenses and regulating the facilities.

“Rural Georgia will benefit from this,” Beach said. “There’s horse farms, hay farms, breeding and auctions. It will create thousands of jobs.”

Republican Sens. Matt Brass of Newnan and Lee Anderson of Grovetown voted against the measure.

Lawmakers in past years have proposed “racino” legislation, which would allow slot machines or other gambling to take place at the racetrack in addition to horse racing.

This year, Beach said the legislation is focused specifically on horse racing in an attempt to cash in on the 80,000 horses that he says travel from Florida facilities, including Tampa Bay Downs, to Kentucky’s Keeneland Racecourse.

Many conservative groups and faith leaders oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime.

Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Convention, called the proposal a “Trojan horse.”

“Those who are proposing it misunderstand what gambling is,” Griffin told the senators. “This is not just people sitting around drinking wine, eating cheese and watching horses.”

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis said he didn’t see the need to debate the morality of gambling since Georgia’s voters approved allowing the lottery 27 years ago.

“This is all about jobs because gambling is already legal in Georgia,” the Chickamauga Republican said.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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