Legalizing pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in Georgia would generate commercial investment and create jobs without using tax dollars, state Sen. Brandon Beach said Tuesday.
Beach, R-Alpharetta, pitched a proposed constitutional amendment calling for a statewide referendum on horse racing and a separate bill specifying how the industry would operate in Georgia at a hearing held by the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee.
Bringing horse racing to Georgia would produce an economic impact of more than $1 billion a year, not only from racetracks but from breeding racehorses, Beach said.
“When we first got into the movie business, a lot of people thought we weren’t going to be successful,” he said. “I think we can do the same thing in the equine industry.”
The difference, Beach said, is that horse racing can operate in Georgia without state subsidies like the large tax credit the state has provided for the past dozen years to lure film and TV productions to the Peach State.
“It’s all private investment,” he said. “We’re not going to have any public investment in this.”
The legislation calls for the construction of up to three mixed-use developments featuring a racetrack, hotels and restaurants. The facilities also could include convention space, entertainment venues and retail shopping.
One of the racetrack complexes would have to be located within 50 miles of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and require an investment of at least $250 million. The other two facilities would be outside the metro region and require a smaller investment of at least $125 million.
Portions of the betting proceeds would go toward education, health care, rural development and to efforts to address problem gambling and promote the horse racing and breeding industries in Georgia.
Horse racing would generate revenue from three sources: pari-mutuel betting during at least 60 days of live racing, betting on simulcast races conducted at tracks in other locations and betting on historic racing machines, similar to slot machines, located at the racetracks.
Beach said the historical racing machines at tracks in Kentucky generated $700 million in 2017 and nearly $1.4 billion in 2018.
“There’s a lot of money in these historical racing machines,” he said.
Several committee members questioned whether racetracks could operate successfully in Georgia without casinos, pointing to examples of racetracks that have struggled financially without them.
Beach said members of the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition, which supports legalizing pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, have assured him racetracks can make a go of it without casinos.
Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, expressed concern that requiring racetracks to be at least 125 miles apart would disqualify Macon, which is closer than that to Hartsfield-Jackson.
Beach responded that he would be willing to amend those distance numbers in the bill.
The legislation also drew criticism from representatives of religious groups.
Mike Griffin of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board said legalized gambling doesn’t make economic sense. He cited a study showing that every $1 in gambling revenue generates $3 in social costs including gambling addiction and family bankruptcies.
Paul Smith of Citizen Impact, a network of pastors, used a slippery-slope argument.
“Once we get horse racing, it’s hard to argue we won’t get the next type of gambling,” he said. “It will be difficult to do one without the other.”
Opposition to legalized gambling among church congregations has played a large part in sinking past efforts in the General Assembly to approve casino gambling and horse racing.
But Beach cited polls showing strong support for legalizing horse racing in Georgia.
“I don’t think anybody’s going lose a primary or general election letting voters decide whether to allow pari-mutuel betting on horse racing,” he assured his Senate colleagues. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”
Dave Williams is a writer for Capitol Beat News Service