This story also appeared in Capitol Beat News Service

ATLANTA – With legislation aimed at legalizing pari-mutuel 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.

Rep. Ron Stephens

“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, Fla., 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 pari-mutuel 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 cash-strapped 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 need-based 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.”

After several committee members objected they hadn’t had a chance to review the new proposal, Stephens agreed to limit Tuesday’s meeting to a hearing only. The panel is expected to vote on it Thursday.

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Dave Williams/Capitol Beat

Dave Williams is bureau chief for Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.