Senate panel bets on horse racing in Georgia

A Senate committee bet big Wednesday on legalized horse racing in Georgia, approving two key measures that would create a new “division of horsing racing” within the Georgia Lottery Corp. and ask voters to approve parimutuel betting statewide.

Senate Bill 264 and Senate Resolution 135 both still face long odds this year, as everyone from Gov. Nathan Deal to religious conservatives including the Georgia Baptist Mission Board have vocally opposed expanded access to gambling here.

But the votes to approve the measures by the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee signaled a willingness by some leaders in the GOP-led state Legislature to keep the effort in play.

“I really feel it’s my obligation to put it on the ballot and let my constituents have their say, whether or not I’m for it or against it,” said state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who voted for the measures in committee and happens to be chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, which decides which bills receive a floor vote in the chamber.

The sponsor of both pieces of legislation, state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, has also tried to sweeten the pot by curtailing where Georgians could place their wagers. He’s hoping those limitations address concerns that legalized horse racing in Georgia would set the table for casinos and other gambling opportunities, something that’s been part of a separate effort at the Capitol.

SB 264 — considered to be “enabling” legislation that would set the rules governing legalized horse racing — would allow up to three racetracks in Georgia. Stripped from the bill, however, was an additional proposal that would also have allowed up to 15 “satellite” betting locations across the state. Beach said too many members had concerns over the so-called off-track betting facilities and how they would be regulated.

No public funding would be required to pay for the racetracks, which would be privately operated and owned. Three percent of proceeds — estimated to be about $15 million to $16 million annually — would go toward the state’s HOPE scholarship for college students.

Beach has proposed to use licensing and other fees instead of state funds to pay for the state’s cost to oversee the industry. In addition to the statewide vote to approve horse racing, local residents would additionally get to vote on whether they wanted to allow the tracks in their communities.

The measure, however, lost votes in committee when members stripped language in the bill that would have allowed the lottery’s governing board to consider “needs-based” efforts to help kids pay for college in addition to “merit-based” rules now in place. Among those voting against both measures was Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker.

Beach believes he has the floor votes in the Senate to pass SB 264, although it is unclear what kind of reception it would receive in the House. SR 135 is likely still a few votes short. The measure proposes a constitutional amendment and requires “supermajority” passage — meaning that two-thirds of the members in each chamber of the Legislature would have to approve it — before it could be placed on the November ballot for voters.

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