A bipartisan panel of state lawmakers on Wednesday backed a plan to legalize betting on horse racing in Georgia.
Rep. Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell), the chairman of the Special Equine Study Committee, said at the panel’s meeting that they would propose a public referendum to legalize a new form of gambling in the state.
The appetite in the state for pari-mutuel gambling is unknown, but this not the first time the idea has come up. Proposals to amend the constitution to allow pari-mutuel betting are introduced every few years, most recently in 2005. None have found the backing necessary to reach voters.
But with lawmakers having already cut more than $3 billion from what is now an $18.5 billion state budget, and an additional $300 million in cuts on the horizon, a new form of revenue that does not include tax increases could be attractive. It’s important to note, too, that three of the four members of Geisinger’s committee who attended Wednesday’s hearing are Republicans, while Democrats have typically introduced the idea in the past.
That said, the state’s social conservatives will likely have serious reservations about expanding legalized gambling.
“Every time there is an economic slow down someone saddles up the idea of horse racing,” Jerry Luquire, the president of the Georgia Christian Coalition, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Horse racing in Georgia is a bad idea, that will not make it to the starting gate this session.”
But Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of National Thoroughbred Racing Association, told the committee that horse racing is not “the devil’s playground,” nor is it a quick fix for the state’s budget woes.
“You’re going to hear a lot of other gambling enterprises sell themselves a quick fix for revenue shortfalls,” Waldrop said. “I don’t think racing is that. I don’t think that’s something it brings to the table directly.”
Waldrop, former chairman of Churchill Downs, the Kentucky track where the Kentucky Derby is run each year, said horse racing done properly is safe and has built-in protections to maintain its integrity.
“You can, with confidence, explain to citizens of this state that there are jobs and economic development that will come with racing,” Waldrop said. “You can manage all the integrity issues, the safety and integrity issues and this will be a huge boon for the people of Georgia and an exciting opportunity to participate.”
Waldrop said the state should not simply limit its citizens to gambling on races run in other states. The key, he said, is to build tracks and attract horse owners to come and race.
Dr. Steve Fisch, a Georgia native and veterinarian practicing in Florida, said the horse industry in that state has a $5 billion impact on the Sunshine State economy.