Georgia Senate committee debates legalizing horse racing, betting

For years state lawmakers have debated whether to legalize horse racing in Georgia, but have never gotten a bill across the finish line.

A Senate committee held a hearing on four horse racing bills Thursday and heard testimony from both sides of the argument.

"Right now, we've got millions of dollars, literally millions of dollars that are moving outside of Georgia to Kentucky and to Florida each year because horse racing is not legalized in Georgia," said state Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro.

Sen. Hickman told his fellow lawmakers that he and his wife breed and race horses in other states.  He was one of a group that hired Georgia Southern University to do an economic impact study on horse racing.

According to that report, the equine industry currently employs 7,212 people in Georgia directly and indirectly. The economic impact is about $282 million.

If the state legalized horse racing and three tracks started operating, the study estimated the number of equine jobs would rise to 15,803 for a combined economic impact of $1.28 billion after 10 years.

"The main thing is it will provide lots of jobs.  Good jobs.  Not ill-repute jobs, but good jobs for the people of Georgia," said state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.

But opponents pointed out that horse racing is a dying industry and that many horse tracks in other states have added other types of gambling to stay afloat.

"In Illinois, where I taught for many years, the horse tracks there are basically now transforming into casinos," said John Kindt, a retired professor.

Kindt said the electronic gaming machines that follow are highly addictive.

"The mental health impacts are huge, since they affect not only the addicted and problem gamblers, but like other addictions that affect 7 to 17 other people," said Kindt.  "Like other addictions race-ino slot machines will cause significant increases in suicides, child abuse, spousal abuse, bankruptcies, property crimes, sex-related crimes."

The committee did not vote on the bills, but the chairman said they will hold another hearing. If lawmakers approve a measure legalizing horse racing, it would require an amendment to the Georgia Constitution. So, they would have to put a question on the ballot for voters to decide.