Horse racing? Casino gambling? Until recently, those were two topics you didn’t discuss at the state capitol.
Bills would occasionally be introduced by lawmakers from Atlanta to legalize pari-mutuel wagering or allow casinos to operate at Underground Atlanta, but the measures typically would be assigned to committees that wouldn’t bother to give them a hearing.
The explanation has always been that these types of things are not politically feasible in a state as conservative as Georgia, where influential religious organizations are adamantly opposed to gambling and related activities.
Given that background, it was a little strange to see what was happening at a recent legislative committee meeting. The panel was chaired by Rep. Harry Geisinger, a Republican from Roswell, and included two conservative Republicans, Jon Burns and Tom McCall, from rural districts.
Geisinger is proposing, and his GOP colleagues on the committee were seriously discussing, a constitutional amendment that would allow horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering in Georgia.
That’s correct: lawmakers from the party that previously showed no interest in legalizing gambling are drafting legislation that would do just that. A crippling recession that cuts state tax collections by $3 billion or $4 billion a year, coupled with an unemployment rate above the 10 percent level, will do that to you.
Geisinger contends that the economic development generated by horse racing and the resulting tax revenues are an idea worth considering.
"This industry creates many, many, many jobs," Geisinger said. "Any time you have all those people working, they pay taxes. It’s good for everybody. So this is why we went ahead and said, well, let’s see what the equine industry can do and what pari-mutuel gaming would mean to Georgia."
A significant hurdle for any legislator, Democrat or Republican, who wants to sponsor a gambling bill is Gov. Sonny Perdue. Perdue strongly supports the position of religious organizations that oppose gambling and has already used his clout to kill legislation related to a social issue — last year’s attempt to legalize Sunday package sales of alcoholic beverages.
Geisinger is well aware of Perdue’s political stance and made a point of telling reporters that his horse racing proposal will be introduced as a constitutional amendment. An amendment requires a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate but it cannot be vetoed by the governor once it has passed, Geisinger noted.
If Geisinger moves ahead with his proposal, it will be a challenge to get it through the General Assembly because of the opposition argument that the gambling industry should not be given the opportunity to establish itself in Georgia.
That argument falls apart for the simple reason that we have had legalized gambling for nearly two decades in the form of the Georgia Lottery. Millions of people have paid billions of dollars for the chance to win one of the elusive lottery jackpots. Without those gambling dollars financing HOPE scholarships, our university system would be in much worse shape than it already is.
Legalized gambling has been a fact of life since the Zell Miller administration. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is the reality of the situation. As distasteful as they are to many people, "sin taxes" from such sources as drinking and gambling may be about the only realistic options left for raising revenues to keep our state government in operation.
Georgians demand basic services like roads, schools, and clean water from their government, but they will also throw out of office any elected official who votes for a general tax increase. Where else can you raise the money to pay for these services but from voluntary pastimes like gambling?
Our political leadership is starting to understand this, which is why you see horse racing being seriously discussed and why you have GOP lawmakers like Rep. Ron Stephens of Savannah proposing higher excise taxes on cigarettes to raise money for health care programs.
Perdue will continue to oppose these "sinful" revenue proposals, but the governor is approaching the end of his term and something needs to be done soon to keep the state from falling apart. Legislators from Perdue’s own party may have to tell him, "Thanks, but no thanks," and start doing things they never would have considered before to rescue the budget. It could be the ultimate political gamble.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays.