Horse-racing advocates call gambling bill a winner

Proponents of horse-racing bets hopeful after 20 years

ATLANTA --- The unanimous vote in a House committee Wednesday on a constitutional amendment to expand legalized gambling in Georgia is giving a second wind to horse-racing buffs who have waited 20 years.

The measure still needs to win two-thirds of the vote in the full House and Senate, and it must be approved by voters in next year's general election. After that, voters in a county where a track would be built also must give their approval. Arguments about financing, tax rates and where the state's share of the money would go will inevitably happen before the first race.

Optimistic projections put the inaugural races in the fall of 2015.

Twenty years ago, some of the same racing supporters behind the current push were equally enthusiastic about their odds. Zell Miller was elected in 1990 on a platform of legalizing gambling as a way to fund education, a promise that wound up only permitting a state-run lottery.

"I think we had incredible momentum going 20 years ago," said Carl Bouckaert, a carpet magnate from Dalton. He was part of a group that took legislators to an out-of-state track, showed them the possibilities for job production at the track and in rural support industry, then watched the dream be negotiated away in the Capitol.

Hal Barry, the president of the Atlanta Steeplechase, wasn't part of that effort, but he has been warned about it.

"Some of the older gentlemen who were involved with the effort 20 years ago, when even I told them we were really going to try to kick this off again, they kind of laughed," said Barry, a developer based in Moreland, Ga. "They said after being shot down so hard before, they're a lot of people saying, 'You'll never get it done.'"

Barry is assembling property to build a 1,500-stall stable and track as part of a retail-office-entertainment complex near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. He broke into a grin and applauded when the House Regulated Industries Committee passed the constitutional amendment Wednesday.

Similar legislation has been introduced yearly by various lawmakers, only to die in a committee.

Committee member Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, warned that more convincing will be needed to get the votes of two-thirds of the legislators and win over the public. That will take a grassroots campaign stressing the 10,000 jobs that supporters estimate will result in urban and rural areas and the benefits to education from the betting.

"I've been disappointed that we haven't seen more interest or activity in the community," he said. "I've been very critical as far as some of our premier, agriculture-based organizations in the state."

They might step forward now that the first jump has been cleared and a full House vote is coming. Opponents of gambling and animal-rights groups likely will mobilize for a sprint to midnight March 16, the deadline for bills to survive.

Bouckaert feels energized.

"No question in my mind that when this thing gets a little traction, you will see people coming out of the woodwork everywhere because the whole state of Georgia benefits," he said. "Georgia is, outside of Atlanta, a rural state."

Reach Walter Jones at walter.jones@morris.com.