Senate panel passes bills setting up horse racing in Georgia

A state Senate panel has passed legislation that would ask voters whether Georgia should expand gambling to allow horse racing in the state.

Supporters say an expansion of the gambling industry could bring thousands of jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars to fund things such as education, health care or rural broadband. Conservative groups and religious organizations oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee passed Senate Resolution 131 on Wednesday to ask voters whether they support allowing horse racing, followed by the passage Thursday of Senate Bill 212, which would establish a Georgia Horse Racing Commission tasked with licensing and regulating up to five racetracks in the state. State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Marietta Republican, was the only committee member to vote against both pieces of legislation.

“I have a huge passion for horse racing,” said state Sen. Billy Hickman, a Statesboro Republican who breeds and races horses in other states. “At the same time as I got a huge passion, I’ve got to remember I’m a (certified public accountant) and things got to make economic sense to me for me to go forward.”

A recent study by Georgia Southern University, done at Hickman’s request, said building three horse racing tracks in the state would create a $1.28 billion industry with more than 8,500 jobs. A previous proposal called for the state to allow up to three tracks.

Proponents of expanded gambling have spent more than seven years trying to pass legislation that would allow Georgia voters to decide whether gaming should be expanded beyond the lottery, which was approved in 1992.

Adding horse racing to the types of gambling available in the state would require Georgians to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the expansion. Constitutional amendments need two-thirds of each chamber to clear the General Assembly and then a majority vote in an election.

If voters approve the gambling expansion, SB 212 would require racetracks to pay the state a 3.75% tax on the total money wagered at their facilities. That money would be used for gambling addiction services, education, health care and addressing rural development needs.

Betters could wager on live races happening at one of the Georgia tracks or another track being simulcast at the Georgia facility. No other form of gambling, such as slot machines, would be allowed.

Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said while he found “pure horse racing” to be the least problematic of the various types of gambling expansion proposed in Georgia — such as casinos and sports betting — he opposed the measure.

“This would probably be the lesser of three evils,” he said. “My experience of being here through the years is that typically one thing leads to another. ... Two years from now there’s a possibility this group will be back here saying, ‘We’re going to have to add (more types of gambling) in here because we’re not making money.’ ”

Similar legislation calling on Georgians to vote on a constitutional amendment to allow sports betting passed the Senate last year but stalled in the House. Sports betting supporters have said they expect the House to take up the proposal soon.

A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened an opportunity for states to legalize sports betting. So far, at least 25 states have done so.