Legalization of sports betting made headway in the Senate, but the amendment failed to pass in the Georgia House.
When I lived in Chicago, I enjoyed attending horse races at the Arlington International Racecourse. But with sports betting illegal in Georgia, I haven’t attended a race since moving to Atlanta.
Legalization of horse racing appeared to be making headway this year. The Georgia Senate passed a measure to amend the constitution to provide for sports betting. But the measure did not pass in the state House before the 2021 legislature adjourned, and once again the push to introduce this new potential revenue stream has been postponed.
The amendment was introduced on February 19, 2021 and it passed the Senate on March 5, 2021 by a vote of 41-10 with five excused or not voting. But failure to pass in the House means no further action on the measure, although it could be reconsidered in 2022.
Senator Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, has been one of the major proponents of a constitutional amendment to legalize horse racing. The legislature can put a proposed amendment on the ballot with a two-thirds majority vote in both legislative chambers, and constitutional amendments must be approved by a majority of the electorate. But it would take enough support in the Senate to garner the two-thirds majority necessary for passage.
According to Beach, legalizing horse racing in Georgia would be a way to boost the economy in rural communities by creating a lucrative equine industry.
Beach told members of the Senate’s Economic Development and Tourism Committee that having a racetrack is essential to the breeding industry. There are currently no incentives to breed race horses in Georgia.
Church Opposition to Horse Racing
Churches in the Bible Belt have expressed strong opposition to horse racing and the sports betting that goes along with it. Opponents say racetracks would lead to casinos, which would in turn lead to increased crime and gambling addictions.
The United Methodist Church issued an official statement opposed to all kinds of gambling.
The Social Principles state that, “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, [and] destructive of good government. . . We oppose the legalization of pari-mutuel betting, for it has been the opening wedge in the legalization of other forms of gambling that has fostered the growth of illegal bookmaking. We deplore the establishment of lotteries and their use as a means of raising public revenues.”
But Methodists aren’t the only ones opposed to horse racing. Mike Griffin of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board cited studies that show that every $1 in gambling revenue generates $3 in social costs including gambling addiction and family bankruptcies.
The Case for a Billion Dollar Industry
Georgia Horse Racing Association President Dean Reeves, along with Chairman Carl Bouchaert, issued a recent opinion piece, saying, “It makes sense for the state to legalize sports betting. It’s against current law, but Georgians easily place bets on games online today. Changing the state constitution to allow it, in other words, won’t change existing behavior. But by recognizing it as legal behavior, the state can tax it and create a new revenue stream.”
Reeves and Bouchkaert pointed out that horse racing would allow Georgia to create a billion-dollar industry with no state support, tax credits, state subsidies or other economic development incentives.
They cited a 2018 study by The Lewis Group that a single horse racing facility would employ more than 2,225 people, grow state GDP by $640 million and have a $1.2 billion economic impact in its first year of operating.
A 2019 poll of Georgia voters showed 66 percent would support horse racing.
The Horse Racing Tracks Industry market report found that on average, U.S. horse racetracks clear over $3 billion in revenue annually and employ over 16,000 people.
Georgia’s equine industry already has a $2.5 billion annual impact on the state’s economy, according to the Georgia Agricultural Commodity Commission for Equine.
And the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development reports that more than 173,000 Georgia households own horses, contributing $868.7 million to the state’s economy.
Dave Williams of Capitol Beat New Service reported that the 2021 Georgia legislation called for the construction of up to three mixed-use developments featuring a racetrack, hotels, and restaurants. One of the racetracks 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 area and require investment of at least $125 million.
But Beach said his bill would not provide any tax credits to incentivize racetrack developers to come to Georgia, nor would the state subsidize Georgia racetracks.
Georgia has a long tradition of legal horse racing that doesn’t involve betting. In April, Georgia residents and visitors head to the Atlanta Steeplechase near Rome and the Hawkinsville Harness Festival in South Georgia.
According to the Georgia Horseracing Coalition, each event has taken place annually for almost 50 years, and the City of Hawkinsville owns the track and training facility where the harness racing takes place.
“While Georgia does permit some forms of gaming, i.e. the lottery to raise funds for education, our current laws block pari-mutuel wagering, making the sport of horse racing unprofitable in Georgia. The state is not taking advantage of the tax revenues and employment opportunities that would be created by the horse-racing industry and pari-mutuel wagering,” the Georgia Horseracing Coalition says on its website.
Pari-mutuel wagering is legal in 43 states. But with sports betting still illegal in Georgia, my best bet for watching a horse race is to travel to Rome and enjoy the Steeplechase, or check out the Harness Festival in Hawkinsville.