Georgia senator files bill that would legalize sports betting

State Sen. Burt Jones confers with colleagues on the floor of the chamber. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

State Sen. Burt Jones confers with colleagues on the floor of the chamber. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

A Republican senator filed legislation that would legalize online sports betting in Georgia, aiming to expand gambling through the state lottery system without requiring a constitutional amendment.

State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, filed a bill Thursday that aims to authorize the Georgia Lottery to manage an online sports wagering system that would benefit the state's HOPE scholarship.

Jones said that since the illegal sports betting market in Georgia is estimated to be $1.5 billion, it makes sense for the state to regulate the system.

“It’s going on currently,” he said. “And so we feel like — much like the internet sales tax — that it’s just an opportunity for us to capitalize on an entity that’s already operating.”

Lawmakers earlier this year approved legislation to force "marketplace facilitators" whose websites or apps are used to sell goods or services provided by someone else to collect and remit sales taxes. It goes into effect April 1.

Under Jones’ legislation, Senate Bill 403, sports betting companies would pay a 20% tax on their income, with almost all but 5% of the revenue going to the HOPE scholarship. The remainder would go to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to fund addiction treatment services.

Players would have to be over 21 to bet and be physically in Georgia to place a wager.

The legislation is backed by the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, a coalition of four professional Atlanta sports franchises — the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta United.

For years, gambling supporters have pushed the Legislature to expand the industry to allow casinos or horse racing. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year opened an opportunity for states to legalize sports betting. So far, more than a dozen states have.

Still, the chances for approval of Jones' legislation are unclear. Senate Republican leadership has said there was no interest in pursuing any form of gambling legislation, while House Speaker David Ralston has noted the growing interest in sports wagering.

Virginia Galloway, a lobbyist with the Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition, said she was disappointed that Atlanta’s teams were pushing for sports betting.

“Haven’t the Braves and Falcons disappointed Georgians enough already?” Galloway said. “Now they’re pushing for a casino in every pocket so more Georgians can get fleeced on their cellphones by gambling interests.”

After years of failed attempts to expand legal gambling through a constitutional amendment, which would require two-thirds support in each chamber of the Legislature and a majority of Georgia voters, Jones said betting could be legalized through legislation that needs a lower threshold of support.

“Today, Georgians are spending more than a $1 billion in the illegal sports betting market,” said Billy Linville, a lobbyist representing the Atlanta teams. “It’s now time for them to wager in a fully regulated environment that protects consumers and the integrity of games.”

Supporters in Georgia are energized by a call from Gov. Brian Kemp to cut state spending — making them think 2020 is the year lawmakers will get behind the premise that expanding gambling will increase state revenue.

State lawmakers in both chambers spent several months last year studying gambling to determine whether and how it should be expanded in the state.