No more studying, gambling, scooters and more now on lawmakers’ agenda

Owners of Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton are pitching the race track facility to state lawmakers as a potential gambling venue that would expand into a casino complex. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Several days before Georgia’s next legislative session begins Monday, lawmakers considering the expansion of legalized gambling are set to tour the Atlanta Motor Speedway where the racetrack’s president dreams of opening a $1 billion casino and entertainment operation.

Thursday’s field trip to the Hampton racetrack is the House’s Special Committee on Economic Growth’s last meeting before lawmakers get down to business in the 2020 legislative session. Since the fall, they’ve heard from gambling interests about the potential jackpot casinos, horse racing and online sports betting could deliver to Georgia at a time of unstable state revenues. The House panel and a related Senate committee’s recommendations could influence the chances that lottery tickets aren’t the only legal gambling option in Georgia.

“We’ve heard from the major gaming players from out of state and it’ll be nice to wrap it up by hearing from homegrown local folks and viewing their property to see what their plans are,” said Rep. Brett Harrell, a Snellville Republican and co-chair of the House committee.

Gambling, along with seat belts, electric scooters and local control over building standards got the legislative study treatment in recent months and legislation stands ready to gain traction in this year’s General Assembly.

In the Legislature’s off-season, smaller groups of lawmakers meet to dig into policy questions that are often too complicated to settle during a harried three-month legislative session.

Harrell says most of his fellow House committee members prefer to let voters decide with a constitutional amendment to legalize not only casinos, but horse racing and online sports betting.

The Senate study panel is expected to endorse at least the legalization of online sports betting, but omit a provision for casinos, which would face an uphill battle in Georgia.

“Our committee discussions have always been that should the citizens authorize gaming in Georgia, before anything happened the various communities have a say on whether something comes to their community,” Harrell said.

Other committee recommendations that might lead to new laws in the 2020 Georgia General Assembly:

Electric scooter slowdown

Some local officials in Georgia got caught off guard in 2018 when hundreds of e-scooters were suddenly dropped off in city centers and college campuses.

This year, Georgia lawmakers might follow the lead of more than 20 states by adopting statewide regulations on the industry that rents scooters. Atlanta, Athens and other local governments in Georgia are also passing regulations, as the two-wheeled devices clutter sidewalks and create conflict with pedestrians.

A Senate committee report recommends imposing a 20 mile-per-hour speed limit, a cap on the impound fees local government can charge and a requirement that scooter riders stick to bicycle lanes, although local governments would retain the ability to allow them on sidewalks.

State Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican who chaired the e-scooter panel, said he plans to re-introduce his Senate Bill 159 this session, a proposal form last year that includes those three report recommendations.

Buckle up in the back

All Georgians riding in cars might soon be required to wear seat belts.

A Senate study committee is calling for lawmakers to expand the seat belt law to require adult passengers in the rear seats to buckle up.

Georgia now requires front-seat passengers to wear belts and anyone under the age of 17 sitting in the back also must buckle up.

Adults who break the seat belt law would face a $15 fine. The driver would get hit with a $25 ticket if a minor is not wearing a seat belt, according to the Senate Bill 160, sponsored by Lithonia Democrat Sen. Tonya Anderson.

A committee recommendation to allow seat belt use to be used as evidence in court is drawing interest from insurance companies, personal injury lawyers, and some Georgia trucking and business associations.

Less local control over residential building designs 

A House study committee suggests stripping local governments of the authority to set housing design standards, like prohibiting vinyl siding or building on a slab.

The Workforce Housing committee report said removing some of the local restrictions should give developers incentive to build more affordable houses.

More than 80 city and county governments in Georgia are on record opposing taking away local design control. The associations that represent many of the state’s cities and counties say local leaders know best which standards to set for their communities.

House builders and others in the residential real estate business are pushing for state lawmakers to restrict design controls by local governments.

Other results from legislative study committees in the run up to the 2020 session include:

  • The House Rural Development Council wants to let a state agency provide low-interest loans to cities and counties to improve broadband service.
  • Criminal justice reform and voting rights groups panned the outcome of a Senate study committee that recommended felon voting laws status quo. The committee considered changing the law so some nonviolent felons could regain their voting rights as soon as they are freed.
Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.