ATLANTA – The perennial push to legalize gambling in Georgia hit the General Assembly Thursday for the first time in this year’s legislative session.

A state Senate committee took up two similar measures asking Georgia voters to decide whether to legalize pari-mutuel betting on horse racing and two accompanying “enabling” bills outlining how the industry would operate in the Peach State.

Supporters came armed with a report from Georgia Southern University projecting horse racing – including the breeding and raising of racing thoroughbreds – would create 15,800 jobs in Georgia during its first decade, generating $1.28 billion in economic impact.

Those numbers are based on provisions in one of the bills calling for the construction of three racetracks, one in metro Atlanta and two in other parts of Georgia. Each track would hold 60 days of racing annually for a total of 180 racing days.

“The majority of these jobs would be agricultural. It will be great for our rural areas,” said Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, who raises and breeds horses and is a cosponsor of one of the Senate bills.

Hickman said Georgia is losing the millions of dollars horse racing could bring to states including Florida and Kentucky where pari-mutuel betting is legal.

Both Senate enabling bills call for dedicating a portion of the proceeds from pari-mutuel betting to education, health care and rural development.

But opponents of horse racing argued the industry has become a losing proposition both in terms of economics and social impacts.

“Today’s horse tracks are a bankrupt business model unless they’re transformed into casinos with slots,” said John Kindt, a retired business professor who has written extensively on the dangers associated with legalized gambling.

“This will bring [gambling] addictions, bankruptcies and broken homes,” added Paul Smith, executive director of Citizen Impact, a Georgia-based Christian public policy nonprofit.

The committee took no action on the bills Thursday. Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said he would like to hold an additional hearing to go over the bills in more detail.

Meanwhile, efforts to legalize online sports betting and/or casino gambling in Georgia have yet to get off the ground under the Gold Dome this year. However, legislative proposals on both forms of gaming introduced last year remain alive for consideration.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.