For The Record

Georgia gamblers win some, lose some as state Legislature reaches final turn

By: - March 16, 2022 3:00 am

Legalized horse racing will likely not come to Georgia this year after a plan to legalize horse betting failed in the state Senate. Pimlico Race Track, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. May 1995

A resolution to bring horse racing to Georgia failed to jump a legislative hurdle in the Senate Tuesday, all but dooming the effort for the year, but gamblers can still pin hopes on a House bill to expand the payouts for coin-operated amusement machines, or COAMs, commonly found in gas stations and convenience stores.

“I am disappointed in my colleagues,” said Chickamauga Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis, chair of the Senate Rules Committee and longtime supporter of bringing race tracks to Georgia. “I really was hoping you would let us go to the ballot, and that’s all this did was take it to the ballot, and I wish you would reconsider.”

Sen. Jeff Mullis. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Senate Resolution 131 received a majority of votes, 33-20, but because it called for a referendum to change the state constitution, it required a two-thirds majority vote to pass rather than a simple majority.

Backers tried to convince their skeptical colleagues by citing a Georgia Southern University study which found that the industry would generate an economic impact of $1.28 billion and bring more than 8,500 new jobs to the state.

Sen. Billy Hickman, a Statesboro Republican who raises horses to race in other states, sought to ease concerns that the three tracks allowed by the bill would bring in historical racing machines, which opponents say are essentially slot machines with a different name but just as addictive.

“The word casinos is nowhere in this bill. Nowhere does this bill say the word casinos,” Hickman said. “Nowhere does this bill say the word slot machines, OK? I want you to get that in your mind, because that’s the way it is, OK? But it does allow horse racing, which is a big agricultural industry.”

Sen. Ed Harbison, a Democrat from Columbus, tried to coax his fellow lawmakers with a higher education funding sweetener.

“I remember when we did lottery, a lot of the people were opposed to the lottery, a lot of people right now who benefit from the lottery proceeds in education, I guarantee you, they were against it, they opposed it, because it’s gambling, they opposed it, because it would be bad for Georgia,” he said. “Right now, Georgia is a centerpiece in the nation, for sponsoring education for their children, for students in the state of Georgia, children don’t have to go outside the state of Georgia because of the great program we have in the lottery.”

But their arguments were not sufficient to persuade enough senators to sign on to the bill.

Republican state Sen. Marty Harbin of Tyrone said he was uneasy with the business model.

“When I give my money to Chick-fil-A, they give me a sandwich, there’s an exchange of values. When I give my money to Coca-Cola, there’s an exchange of values,” he said. “But here’s the issue. In gambling, for there to be a winner, there must be a loser. The system does not work unless there’s a loser. It is not an equal exchange of value.”

Harbin said he’s worried more people would become addicted to gambling at race tracks.

“We’ve all met people who could not handle gambling,” he said. “It’s a health problem, because among those who are addicted to gambling, there’s a high suicide rate as well that goes along with that.”

When the resolution was voted down, Mullis successfully moved to reconsider, which kept the hope alive for horse racing fans for this year that Mullis could somehow wrangle enough votes to pass the plan by the end of Tuesday’s key deadline.

Always the showman, Mullis kept Georgia politics watchers guessing until the Senate was nearly adjourned, rising to speak before the last gavel.

“You know, I’ve had a bad day today, and my friends have deserted me,” he said. “But I’m determined. I move that Senate Bill nothing be taken off the table.”

“Thank you for that theatrical performance,” said Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan.

Coin-Operated Amusement Machines ride on

In the House, a bill to expand payouts to players electronic games of chance hit paydirt after an initial loss.

House Bill 1424 makes several changes to the law dealing with these machines, including allowing operators to offer non-rechargeable gift cards worth up to $50 as prizes.

Bill sponsor Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, said the goal of the bill is to discourage those operators from illegally offering cash prizes.

Rep. Alan Powell. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“Y’all may remember this discussion from last year, the idea that a lot of us had, where you see a lot of cases that there are those people that get called paying out cash, and by going to the gift card so that they can redeem for non-cash prizes or restaurants or certificates, and this would hopefully, stop eating illegal traffic,” he said.

Atlanta Democratic Rep. Stacey Evans argued against the bill, saying the state does not get enough of a cut to warrant an expansion.

“We should not fool ourselves that these machines don’t attract nuisances, they create nuisances and problems in our community,” she said. “And just like with any gambling operation of any sort, we might be willing to take the bad if there is an overwhelming good, and I can’t explain to you how the COAM industry was able to establish themselves in this state and only give us 10% of the proceeds for educational purposes for HOPE and pre-k, which is what they do right now, 10%.”

The bill failed to receive the required majority the first time around, failing 88-79, but a second push from Powell later in the night saw more success, passing 100-67.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.