Rome News-Tribune

State House committee reworks horse betting legislatio­n

♦ The previous version stalls in the Senate.

- By Dave Williams

ATLANTA — With legislatio­n aimed at legalizing parimutuel betting on horse racing stuck in a Georgia Senate committee, a House panel aired a new version of the measure Tuesday.

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-savannah, pitched a constituti­onal amendment asking voters to decide whether to legalize the sport as a way to reenergize rural Georgia’s struggling economy.

“It will create a new industry in Georgia of horse breeders and horse sales that could have over $1 billion (a year) in economic impact in our state,” Stephens told members of the House Economic Developmen­t and Tourism Committee, which he chairs.

Stephens held out Ocala, Florida, as an example, home to 37,000 racehorses, by far the largest breeding and training ground for horseracin­g in the nation. The industry generates an annual economic impact of $1.5 billion in Marion County, where Ocala is located, he said.

Stephens said horse breeding could become a safety net for tree farmers who lost their pecan crops to Hurricane Michael in 2018. It will take 20 years to grow new pecan trees to replace those lost to the storm, he said.

“This would allow those farmers to get into another industry,” he said.

To broaden support for the constituti­onal amendment in the General Assembly, the measure would dedicate 10% of the net proceeds from parimutuel betting on horse racing to health care. Most previous horse racing legislatio­n has proposed putting the proceeds exclusivel­y toward Georgia’s lottery-funded HOPE Scholarshi­ps and pre-kindergart­en programs.

Stephens said the portion of the proceeds going to health care could be steered to rural communitie­s, where some cashstrapp­ed hospitals have been forced to close in recent years.

But Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-albany, complained that the language in the measure isn’t specific enough.

“If it’s not specifical­ly outlined, my concern is that the money would go everywhere,” he said.

Stephens said another part of the proceeds would be used to create “an opportunit­y fund” that would provide needbased scholarshi­ps and pre-k assistance to Georgia families with annual incomes below $58,000. Currently, HOPE scholarshi­ps are based on merit rather than need.

If the constituti­onal amendment passes the committee, it would require two-thirds majorities of the House and Senate to get it through the General Assembly and onto next year’s statewide ballot.

That promises to be a difficult hill to climb considerin­g many lawmakers oppose legalized gambling both on moral grounds and because of its tendency to enable addictive gamblers.

“We can put a lot of lipstick on this pig,” said Rep. Randy Nix, R-lagrange, referring to the promises of rural economic developmen­t and funding for education and health care. “But at the end of the day, we’re going to expand gambling big time in the state of Georgia.”

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