ATLANTA - Georgia voters may get the chance next year to allow wagering on horse racing, a move that some worry could open the door to casino gambling.
Led by state Rep. Harry Geisinger, a Republican from Roswell, a study committee on pari-mutuel betting on horse racing holding meetings across the state will make recommendations to the Legislature by the end of the year. Advocates testified before the panel Monday that proceeds could be funneled into the coffers of the state's HOPE scholarships and prekindergarten programs, which were cut this year because of budget problems.
But they could have an uphill battle as conservatives balk at adding more gambling in Georgia, particularly games that could cut into the state's lottery revenue going directly to educational programs. And some state lawmakers point to states like Kentucky and Indiana, where race tracks are trying to add casinos to help boost revenue.
"If Kentucky of all places is having problems, it concerns me a little bit when we start looking at the state of Georgia on this issue," said Rep. Tim Bearden, a Republican from Villa Rica who is on the study committee. "Are we going to be sitting back in here to beg casinos to come in this state to prop up the horse racing industry?"
Horse racing advocates say the industry could raise millions in tourism revenue for the state and create new jobs in breeding and training, as well as equine medical care. The horse racing industry generates $26 billion annually in the United States, according to the American Quarter Horse Racing Association.
"We run a race every spring here in Georgia, and guess what question comes up first: 'Where can I place a bet?'" Hal Barry, chairman of the 46-year-old Atlanta Steeplechase horse race, told the study committee Monday. "Hopefully you can help us answer that."
According to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, 38 states have pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing. Georgia is the only one considering adding it, according to the association.
It's not a new topic in Georgia. In the 1990s, former Gov. Zell Miller ran for office on creating a lottery and adding horse racing, but he was only able to get the lottery passed.
Supporters say Georgia is ideally situated for horse racing because it is accessible through major interstates and has the infrastructure to support it. Geisinger said a recent state Department of Agriculture study showed 177,000 horses passed through Georgia on the way to races in Florida during the 14-month period ending in February 2010.
"We're not benefiting more than some gasoline and somebody's lunch," he said.
The six-member study committee is comprised of three lawmakers, two community representatives and one person from the horse racing industry. The state must have a constitutional amendment to allow pari-mutuel wagering, which would require a two-thirds vote by state lawmakers and approval from voters.
The earliest it could go on a ballot would be November 2012.