People watch coverage of the first round of the NCAA college basketball tournament at the Westgate Superbook sports book in Las Vegas. The Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a federal law that bars gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports in most states, giving states the go-ahead to legalize betting on sports. Georgia is considering such a measure. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Photo: John Locher
Photo: John Locher

Opinion: Should Ga. legalize sports betting?

The concept is familiar to any sports fan who’s made a friendly cash wager on a game or workplace sports betting pool.

Take the popularity of those endeavors and marry them with today’s ubiquitous technology at our fingertips and it’s understandable why sports betting has become a growing,multibillion-dollar industry.

Sports wagering is also illegal in most states, including Georgia. That’s been changing since a Supreme Court decision in 2018 struck down federal prohibition of sports betting, leaving the matter of legality to the states.

Georgia Senate Bill 403 would legalize sports betting here. Introduced last month, it would enable wagering on professional and collegiate sporting events, including the growing e-sports category.

SB 403 would place sports betting under the authority of the Georgia Lottery Corp. and create a new entity called the Georgia Mobile Sports Wagering Integrity Commission to oversee it.

As is to be expected in a conservative state like Georgia, it was a sure bet that the prospect of expanding gambling – especially without a vote of the people – would draw opposition from those concerned about problems of gambling addiction and other possible social costs of legalized wagering. Those concerns are real and should be thoroughly considered by the Georgia General Assembly.

It is also equally real that sports wagering is already big business nationally – and in Georgia – and seems to be gaining ground as quickly as technology and evolving user habits allow.

That’s helped lead the sports industry as well to evolve on wagering around games. A 2018 Washington Post Op-Ed wrote that, “For years, most American sports leagues have resisted gambling of any sort, scarred by match-fixing and point-shaving scandals that still stain history books.” The piece went on to predict that, “As sports gambling becomes more widespread, it will become increasingly folded into the fabric of the games Americans love to watch.”

Put another way, many fans are already using their mobile devices to place bets – at this point, illegally – while sitting in sports bars, their own homes or paid seats at sporting events. Technology’s made that both possible – and very popular.

All of which makes this section of SB 403 an intriguing public policy prospect:

“It is found and declared by the General Assembly that … the lottery game of sports wagering can be conducted in a manner to safeguard the fiscal soundness of the state, enhance public welfare, and support the need to educate Georgia’s children …”

Georgia, in other words, sees a way to use sports betting to create a new state revenue stream. Given the current, cash-strapped state budget with budget cuts on the table, this position is understandable.

In our view, it seems reasonable to consider expanding legal gambling here to include sports betting. After all, this activity is already taking place, with none of that money benefiting Georgians.

And gambling operators are legitimate businesses, willing to put their own capital at risk, so it’s understandable how that is attractive to a pro-private enterprise state like Georgia.

Legalizing sports wagering is a serious matter, however, that also carries with it possible downsides such as increasing the propensity for creating problem gamblers and the costs that adds to society and government.

We believe Georgia should seriously consider – let alone enact – any expansion of gambling only if the state is both willing to commit adequate resources to stringently regulate the business of betting and also allocate sufficient resources to address problems that arise.

SB 403 does make note of problems that can be caused by gambling and spells out some requirements intended to address that. The bill would allocate five percent of the state’s revenue from sports betting to the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which would then fund entities that provide treatment for problem gambling.

That seems a good start. Lawmakers should seriously weigh as well whether the efforts in SB 403 are enough to safeguard Georgia and its interests in preventing, and treating, gambling addiction or related problems. If the state is an actor in expanding gambling, it also has the moral requirement to facilitate treatment and solutions of problems that result, we believe.

Along a similar line of inquiry, lawmakers should also thoroughly assess whether the proposed state levy on gambling proceeds is high enough. If Georgia gets into this new game, it needs to make sure the fiscal payoff is well worth it. The students who are in line to benefit from gambling proceeds deserve at least that much diligence.

Expanding gambling here should not be undertaken if a low-regulation mindset carries the day. Gambling firms operating in other states are used to a high level of scrutiny and oversight. Given Georgia’s attractiveness as a market, we doubt operators will pass us by if our state’s gambling rules match up well with national best practices. Lawmakers shouldn’t forget that.

It is encouraging that SB 403 does seem to make a reasonably sturdy start at considering these issues and more.

Licensing requirements call for obtaining “information, documentation, and assurances as may be required to establish by clear and convincing evidence the applicant’s good character, honesty and integrity.”

The proposal also would require bettors to register with gambling venues and require operators to let users self-limit their participation if they believe their gambling’s becoming a problem.

Another area lawmakers and citizens should be cognizant of is public transparency. As in how much information about the finances of future gambling operations here is accessible to public inspection. The new commission is charged with setting rules around disclosure. Any carve-outs of confidentially should be minimal and defer to the overarching civic ideal of keeping public business public, we believe.

Legalizing sports betting seems to have some potential for helping Georgia’s fiscal picture. Georgians are relying on lawmakers to successfully balance any future benefit against potential downsides if the bill is passed into law.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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