Hard times and horse-racing at the state Capitol

6:21 pm January 27, 2010, by Jim Galloway

Hard times redefine what you’re willing to do to stay alive. Ask any college graduate in charge of the fry vat at Burger Doodle.

Republicans in the Legislature are experiencing a similar paradigm shift when it comes to prodding the state’s economy and scrounging for the tax dollars needed to keep state government, a $17 billion-a-year operation, from grinding to a halt.

Forbidden topics are being openly discussed. Tax hikes couched as fee increases, for instance.

Some ideas are darker than others. Early this week, an economic adviser brought in to lecture state lawmakers quite seriously recommended elimination of the minimum wage and a rethinking of child labor laws.

But we are not that hungry yet.

Other taboos, however, look more inviting. This week, state Rep. Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell) introduced HR 1177, a proposed constitutional amendment that would bring horse racing into Georgia. The bill number is no coincidence.

The legislation, which would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and November ballot approval by voters, would allow local communities to decide whether to indulge in pari-mutuel wagering.

The bill’s sponsor is selling the measure as a way to create jobs and rescue south Georgia real estate with horse-farm immigrants from Florida. “I’ve had some farmers from down there tell me they support this because it will bring the land back,” said Geisinger, the 2008 co-chairman of the Mike Huckabee presidential campaign in Georgia.

“It has a chance because of the economic times,” said the Roswell lawmaker. “It has a chance because the last time we had a major attempt, which was 11 years ago, even the polling then showed that it would pass.”

Even with 50 House members already signed on to the bill, skepticism is justified.

With the exception of the state lottery, gaming measures have had a poor history in the Legislature. And House members are reluctant to take a chance on issues certain to die when they move to the Senate.

But this is where the topic gets interesting. Waiting for HB 1177 is Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), a conservative Christian often mentioned as future gubernatorial timber. Rogers recently took his two horse-loving daughters to Arlington Park near Chicago, and had what he declared to be a wholesome family experience.

(It’s worth noting that the Rev. Pat Robertson has been a lifelong fan of thoroughbred racing.)

Rogers says he’d support Geisinger’s venture, should it pass the House.

“His bill allows [pari-mutel wagering] to be determined on a local basis. So if your community’s not for it, you would simply say, ‘We don’t want it,’” Rogers said. “The state should not be telling communities ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on it. The state needs to be getting out of the business of one-size-fits-all.”

But we’re talking about more than horse racing. In Savannah, the push is on to make the city a base for cruise ships. “Savannah is right in the middle of negotiating to see if we can get the dock space,” said state Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), chairman of the House Economic Development Committee, who is involved in the talks.

Stephens doesn’t shy away from the fact that gaming has become an essential part of cruise-ship economics, even if the roulette wheel only spins in international waters.

“I don’t even think they would build a boat without a casino,” the Savannah lawmaker said. “That’s part of the entertainment.”

Republicans are finding that, if their response to the Great Recession is to unshackle the state’s economic engines, consistency won’t always allow them to pick and choose among the chains to be severed.

Both Rogers and Stephens linked the pari-mutuel issue to the Sunday sales of beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores, now barred in Georgia. “We shouldn’t be imposing our ideological values, whatever they may be, on people in certain areas that may want it,” Stephens said.

The Legislature — the state Senate, in particular — has been loath to act on the Sunday sales issue. But former Gov. Roy Barnes on Wednesday made sure it would become part of this year’s race for governor.

The Democrat endorsed Sunday sales, using nearly the same words as Rogers and Stephens.

“I don’t know why we get cranked up about this, to be frank. That’s something that people ought to have to regulate themselves,” Barnes said. “There may be some parts of the state that say, ‘We don’t want no part of this.’ But in other places, it’s part of their economic fiber.”

Hard times make for different times.



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