A Georgia Senate committee signed off on a plan to bring horse racing to the state, another attempt in a five-year effort to expand gambling.
State Sen. Brandon Beach's bill would create a five-member Gambling Commission, tasked with rewarding contracts for race tracks to three investors. The legislation requires the tracks to host races at least 60 days a year. One would sit within 50 miles of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and invest $250 million in its arena. The others would sit outside the radius, each agreeing to pump in at least $125 million.
The bill is paired with a Senate resolution, which calls for a vote on a state constitutional amendment, perhaps on a 2020 ballot.
"It's good for every county in our state," said Beach, R-Alpharetta. "All 159 counties can play a part in this through horse farms, hay farms, breeding. It's really bringing the equine industry to Georgia."
The Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee passed the bill, 5-2, during a hearing Wednesday. The legislation would next go to the chamber floor. State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, is a co-sponsor and voted in approval.
"Even some people who claim that they're against gambling have taken advantage of the [lottery-funded] HOPE scholarship," he said.
"I'm not for putting everything on a ballot. But things that have been vetted and have emotional attachment, I think it's important to give the citizens the right to vote for or against such issues."
Beach, who has already announced a 2020 campaign against Democrat U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath in the Atlanta suburbs, has been a strong advocate for the expansion of gambling in Georgia. In 2015, the state House and Senate met multiple times with casino executives in study committee meetings.
Led by MGM, a slew of gambling companies hired about three dozen lobbyists and dumped $200,000 into candidate war chests heading into the 2016 legislative session, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Beach sponsored a bill that would have created a "division of horse racing" inside the Georgia Lottery Corp. While it passed committee, as it has this year, the bill did not get a vote in the Senate.
Beach introduced a more sweeping bill in 2017, which at one point proposed five casinos and a horse racing track in the state. He tied revenue from a proposed 20 percent tax to increased funding for the HOPE scholarship, needs-based college grants, rural hospitals, broadband infrastructure and raises for police officers. That proposal did not get out of committee.
Some religious conservatives have spoken out against Beach's past bills, including the Faith and Freedom Coalition and the Georgia Baptist Missionary Board.
On Wednesday, Beach argued the state is in a good location to pick up horse racing enthusiasts who travel through other popular locations.
"It's too hot in Florida, but it's too cold in Kentucky and New York," he said. "We have the perfect climate for a two-month racing schedule."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.