Senate panel votes to legalize sports betting in Georgia

Sen. Burt Jones, R - Jackson, presents legislation that would legalize sports betting in Georgia. Bob Andres /

Sen. Burt Jones, R - Jackson, presents legislation that would legalize sports betting in Georgia. Bob Andres /

A Senate panel voted Friday to resurrect a proposal that would allow mobile sports betting in Georgia.

The Senate Special Judiciary Committee early Friday approved legislation that aims to authorize the Georgia Lottery to manage an online sports wagering system. Any revenue generated would benefit the state’s HOPE scholarship.

The legislation is being shepherded through the Senate by Jackson Republican state Sen. Burt Jones, who amended House Bill 903 to advance his proposal. HB 903 would have regulated motor vehicle ticket citations.

Jones said allowing Georgians to legally wager on professional sports would bolster the state’s HOPE scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs.

“The only way to keep that program viable for years to come is to do one of two things — cut costs or find ways to generate more revenue dollars,” Jones said. “There are statistics that show (sports betting) is a $1.5 billion industry right here in Georgia, but it’s not regulated. It’s practicing in the shadows.”

Jones said supporters estimate sports betting could bring in between $50 million and $60 million in revenue.

Under Jones' proposal, which was originally filed as Senate Bill 403 earlier this year, sports betting companies would pay a 20% tax on their income, with almost all revenue going to the HOPE scholarship.

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.

Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said he believed sports betting was a way for fans to feel invested in the teams they support.

“In addition to creating strict regulatory requirements and safeguards for consumers, it will protect the integrity of our games and greatly enhance our engagement with fans,” Koonin said in a statement. “During this difficult time for our professional sports teams, maintaining and building our engagement and relationship with fans is absolutely critical.”

For years, gambling supporters have pushed the Legislature to expand the industry to allow casinos or horse racing. But a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened an opportunity for states to legalize sports betting. So far, nearly 20 states have.

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

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 to determine whether it should be expanded in the state and how that could happen.