Horse racing comes right up to the gate

The General Assembly is taking a lengthy adjournment to allow time to work on the budget and the greatly decreased collections in revenue related to the recession, among others.

This past week a number of new bills were filed including HB 1168 by Reps. Geisner, Lindsey, McCall, Levitas and Kidd and others. The bill is the enabling legislation for pari-mutuel wagering in Georgia on horse racing. HR 2116 is the accompanying resolution which, if approved, would allow the Constitution to be amended to permit the activity.

When I saw this legislation, I reflected back 30 years to discussions I had with a then law school friend of mine from Hawkinsville. He was an advocate of horse racing in Georgia. Of course those of you familiar with Hawkinsville know that it has a pretty well known harness racing training facility and strong history in harness racing. Fast forward 30 years and the Georgia Legislature is giving consideration to a possible next step in horse racing, pari-mutuel wagering.

This would be a two-step initial process.

First the General Assembly has to approve placing the resolution on the ballot for approval by the voters. This would be through HR 2116 and would be an amendment to the Constitution of the state of Georgia. It would require a vote in the House and then the Senate with no less than two-third's approval. If approved, it cannot be vetoed by the governor.

Next, it would go on a ballot to be voted on by the citizens of Georgia in November. The amendment itself is short -- the enabling legislation which must accompany the amendment (HB 1168) is not. It is over 35 pages in length.

That will not be on your ballot. So here are some of the finer points in the legislation.

Portions of any "pools" from wagering on horseracing would go to a Georgia Breeders fund to "foster" the industry of breeding race horses in Georgia. Portions also would be allocated to the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia and the College of Agriculture at the University of Georgia. A portion would also go to the state of Georgia as a license fee.

A Georgia Racing Commission would be created and that commission would be in charge of issuing licenses for any racetracks. The commission would also create rules, regulations and conditions under which horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering could be conducted in Georgia.

Fingerprinting and background checks are mandated as part of the requirements. Testing of the horses for foreign substances would also be mandated. There are even provisions for simulcast horse racing, but only from a licensed horse track. The minimal rules appear to be very strict and frequently refer to compliance with the federal Interstate Horseracing Act.

So, if approved by the General Assembly to go to the ballot and then approved by Georgians, will pari-mutuel wagering on horse races pop up all over Georgia? No. It is not an automatic thing. A license still cannot be granted in Georgia unless the city or county in which the facility is to be built has obtained approval in a referendum by those residing within the city/county.

Will we see people in Georgia in fancy hats at race tracks holding up those cards as they pull for the horse they wagered on? Will we see the likes of a Secretariat, Sea Biscuit or Seattle Slew in Georgia? We will know in the coming months if the door opens to allow it. What say ye, the voters? Time will tell.

Michael Meyer von Bremen is an Albany attorney and a former state senator who represented the 12th Senate District, which includes Albany, for a decade. He writes a column periodically during the legislative session on issues facing the General Assembly.