Georgia panel makes another attempt to get gambling on November ballot

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R - Savannah, during the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres /

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R - Savannah, during the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres /

A House panel on Monday again approved legislation that would ask Georgia voters whether the state should expand legal gambling to include casinos, horse racing and sports betting.

The effort, spearheaded by House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Ron Stephens, is an attempt to bolster the state's economy, which took a hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stephens likened the need for expanded gambling in Georgia in 2020 to the Legislature’s expansion of the film tax credit in 2008, the last time the state was facing such a dire economic picture.

“We’re in no different situation today,” the Savannah Republican said. “We need investment in the state of Georgia.”

Members of the House Regulated Industries Committee voted 13-3 to approve the measure, now Senate Resolution 841. The panel passed a similar resolution in March, but it failed to make it to the floor for a vote.

If passed, the new SR 841 would ask voters in November whether the Georgia Constitution should be amended to allow parimutuel betting, casino gambling and sports betting. If voters approve the amendment, each county would have to hold a local referendum to see whether residents wanted to allow gambling in their community.

According to the proposed legislation, the Georgia Lottery and casinos would run sports betting. Money generated by sports betting through the Georgia Lottery would be dedicated to the HOPE scholarship.

Revenue from nonlottery-run sports betting, casinos and horse racing would go to three different pots.

Initial proceeds would go to a new emergency fund until it reached the equivalent of 10% of the state’s budget. Stephens called that fund a “lock box” that would complement the state’s rainy day account.

Remaining proceeds would be split evenly between the state’s general fund and an “opportunity fund,” defined as needs-based money that would help families pay for pre-kindergarten and post-secondary education.

The move comes less than a week after a Senate panel approved House Bill 903. That bill would authorize the Georgia Lottery to manage an online sports wagering system. Any revenue generated would benefit the state’s HOPE college scholarship.

Adding horse racing or casino gambling would require Georgians to approve a constitutional amendment. And the Legislature’s lawyers have encouraged lawmakers to pursue a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting if they want that.

Getting a constitutional amendment through the General Assembly requires two-thirds of each body to approve the measure — meaning 120 state representatives and 37 senators would have to vote yes to pass the legislation. It then needs a majority of voters to approve it.

While the issue has been debated for years, supporters in Georgia see an opportunity to bolster the state’s revenue by bringing a new legal industry into the state after the economy took a hit amid the coronavirus pandemic.

State lawmakers in both chambers spent several months last year studying gambling.

Supporters believe an expansion of the gambling industry could bring thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Georgia Lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. Conservative groups and religious organizations oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime.

John Kent, who said he is a retired college professor from Illinois, said he was “appalled” that state lawmakers were misleading voters by brushing aside what he believes are the ills of gambling.

He said his family is moving out of Illinois to relocate to Georgia. “One major reason is to get away from the addicted gamblers, the bankruptcies, the crime and corruption, which permeates the Legislature as well,” he said.

Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, took issue with Kent's remarks.

“I’m a little bit appalled by the idea that the people of Georgia can’t make a decision on their own,” he said. “If they don’t want it, fine. They don’t have to have it.”

Polls suggest that most Georgians want to expand gambling.

A January poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 64% of Georgians surveyed supported casino gambling. That's up from 56% of those surveyed in 2017, the last time the AJC questioned voters about casinos.

And 57% of respondents in January said they back legalized betting on professional sporting events, according to the AJC poll.