Georgia Horse Racing Bill Passes Senate Committee

Here in Georgia, home of rigged elections and football teams that almost win championships, gambling is only something you can do if a) you like to play the lottery, b) you know a good underground poker game, or c) feel like driving hours to a casino in another state. It’s okay – though I write about poker for a living, I’m not that much of a gambler, so I don’t really care all that much, even though I would like regulated online poker to be a thing here someday. I’m not holding my breathe for any sort of gambling other than the lottery, but to my surprise, a Georgia Senate committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would legalize horse racing in the Peach State.

Georgia PeachSmaller of Two Bills Takes First Step

Senate Resolution 84, sponsored by state Senator Brandon Beach (R – Alpharetta), passed the Economic Development and Tourism Committee by a vote of 5-2, a result which Beach told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was a “big step.”

SR 84 proposes a constitutional amendment to legalize “pari-mutuel betting on horse racing” and would include it as a referendum on a state ballot.

A companion bill, SB 45, called the “Rural Georgia Jobs and Growth Act,” would create the Georgia Horse Racing Commission and lay out the regulations. This, in effect, is the “real” bill and has not been voted on yet.

If all of this eventually becomes law, up to three race tracks could be licensed. Whereas previous gambling proposals have focused a lot on metro Atlanta, the idea behind the horse racing bills is to benefit rural Georgia.

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

Even more specifically, Beach said that he wants Georgia race tracks to be a stop during the travels of the 80,000 horses that travel from Florida venues to Keeneland Racecourse in Kentucky.

As usual, the primary opposition to the horse racing bills are religious and conservative groups.

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

Essentially what he is saying is that this will not be some idealized version of horse racing, where the rich mingle and make business deals while white-gloved servers present them with champagne options. It will not be a scene out of Pretty Woman, but rather venues where the most vulnerable throw their paychecks away.

Jeff Mullis, who is on the Economic Development and Tourism Committee and is also the Chair of the Senate Rules Committee, said, referring to the lottery, to forget the morality argument. “This is all about jobs because gambling is already legal in Georgia.”

Previous Georgia Gambling Talks Have Sputtered

There has been talk for years in Georgia about the possibility of expanding gambling, the main goal of which would be to fund the HOPE Scholarship. The HOPE Scholarship debuted in 1993 and helps students pay for in-state post-high school education (even private schools) as well as pre-kindergarten programs. Everyone who earns at least a 3.0 grade point average is eligible for the HOPE Scholarship and can continue to earn it in college as long as those grades are maintained.

It is a fantastic program, but that’s the problem. It has become so popular and so many students have been able to take advantage of it that the funding, achieved through the lottery, has had trouble keeping up. Because of this, benefits like student fees and books have been cut, and starting in 2015, new “academic rigor” standards were added, requiring students to take more difficult classes to qualify for the HOPE Scholarship. For a few years, these academic rigor standards were increased.

The push for expanded gambling – even if it isn’t the strongest one – is because of the desire to bolster the HOPE Scholarship, but the potential for increased tourism and jobs certainly doesn’t hurt.

MGM Resorts International has pitched Atlanta leaders on a $1.4 billion MGM casino property in the city. Some are certainly for it – one would think the massive convention centers both downtown and near the airport would love to have another attraction nearby – but others are against it because they believe it would cannibalize entertainment dollars from local venues, especially because MGM could pay more for headline acts.

Beach has also introduced a bill to legalize casino gambling in years past, though it hasn’t gotten anywhere. It has had a couple variations. One had the state split into five or six regions, with one casino permitted in each, except for the metro Atlanta region, which could have two. Another variation authorized two “destination resort” casinos, like the MGM proposal, with location requirements revolving around county populations.

There has never been any serious discussion in Georgia about legalizing online poker, to this writer’s dismay.

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