An ongoing saga of legalizing sports betting in the Georgia Legislature

Illustration by Ric Watkins

Credit: Ric Watkins

Credit: Ric Watkins

Illustration by Ric Watkins

Since the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the opportunity for states to legalize sports betting, several lawmakers have sought to bring it to Georgia in hopes of driving revenue to the state.

Four years later, the details on how online sports wagering would work in Georgia are still being debated, and legislation to allow it has gone nowhere.

It’s still unclear how much money companies would pay for sports betting licenses, what those companies should be taxed, if betting on college sports should be allowed and where the government’s money would go once it’s collected. Many disagree on which types of gambling should become legal in Georgia – with talks of casinos and horse-racing facilities having swirled the Gold Dome for nearly a decade.

Expanding gambling in Georgia is difficult to do because it requires amending the state constitution – allowed only once two-thirds of each legislative chamber agree to place it on a statewide ballot and a majority of voters approve the change. A 2020 poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that about 58% of Georgia voters support legalizing sports betting.

And it’s already going on. Supporters say Georgians illegally bet nearly $5 billion a year on sports. Georgians can pull up a sports betting website or app on their cellphone and place bets on games – most likely using overseas servers and skirting Georgia’s laws making the practice illegal.

The Georgia Senate last year passed legislation that would have asked voters to approve online sports betting. The legislation went through several iterations in the House during this year’s legislative session and eventually morphed into bills that would ask voters if they supported allowing several forms of gambling. But they never made it to the House floor for a vote.

“The Senate just wanted sports betting and didn’t want to fool with anything else,” said House Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “It’s kind of ludicrous to me to do it that way. If you’re going to put it on the ballot, put them all on, because gambling is gambling.”

Because the measures didn’t pass before the end of the two-year legislative cycle, lawmakers will have to start from scratch next year and aim to put it on the ballot in 2024.

House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican who has championed all forms of gambling in Georgia, said he will continue to work to get sports betting across the finish line.

“The silly thing of it all is people are going to do it anyway. For me it’s a matter of, No. 1, regulating it, which is a big deal, and taxing it and getting the revenue,” Stephens said. “We’re going to try again.”

For the better part of a decade, supporters have pushed the Legislature to expand gambling to include casinos or horse racing. After the Supreme Court ruling, a coalition of Atlanta’s professional sports teams – the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Atlanta United – set their sights on online sports wagering and have lobbied lawmakers to pass a bill.

More than 30 states either have or are in the process of establishing legal sports betting.

Supporters have said sports betting could bring anywhere from $30 million to $100 million in revenue to the state. Critics have said such numbers are exaggerated.

Supporters have been unable to settle on where the money collected should go. Options discussed include using the revenue to bolster the merit-based HOPE scholarship, paying for needs-based scholarships and funding rural health care and broadband efforts across the state.

The future of sports betting legislation in Georgia is unclear. Supporters have vowed to continue pushing to legalize the practice, while opponents have said they will continue to fight the expansion of any form of gambling – which they say is immoral, addictive and leads to crime.

State Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock Republican and a pastor, has been an outspoken opponent of expanding gambling in Georgia. He said that while sports gambling is the least concerning of the three options being discussed in Georgia, it’s a “slippery slope.”

“It allows problem gamblers to gamble in private, which is the worst-case scenario for them because they can do it in the privacy of their own home and gamble away their rent money and their child’s college fund,” he said.

Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said gambling creates mental, financial and safety issues for Georgians.

“Yes, it creates revenue, but it also creates other needs,” Griffin said. “Gambling is an addictive product just like heroin, opioids, alcohol and cocaine. ... Sports betting is the most accessible form of gambling that there is, which creates more problems – quicker problems – and sometimes more devastating problems from a mental-health and bankruptcy issue.”

Turnover among the lawmakers who want to expand gambling also will shape the future of the effort. Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who sponsored the Senate legislation that made it out of the chamber last year, is not seeking reelection.

State Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson, who also has sponsored sports betting bills, is not seeking reelection but is running to be lieutenant governor. One of the lieutenant governor’s roles is to preside over the Senate and call legislation to the floor for debate.

“I’m still in that same posture of supporting the online sports betting piece of (gambling expansion),” Jones said. “Obviously, as the lieutenant governor, you don’t carry bills, but if somebody did carry it and it was put together appropriately, I would definitely allow it to get on the floor for a vote. And I think it would pass.”

Charlie Bailey, who won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in Tuesday’s runoff election, also said he’s supportive of legalized sports betting.

“We need to regulate it well and tax it,” he said. “And use that money to ... pay for pre-K education and paying our teachers with raises, not one-time bonuses, and to make technical college free.”

Ryan Graham, the Libertarian candidate on the November ballot, also said he was supportive of it.

“Sports gambling happens, regardless of the law, and has far worse outcomes when it’s illegal,” Graham said. “We either surrender sports betting to organized crime and fraudsters, or we allow peaceful people to spend their money in a legal economy.”

Key dates in Georgia’s discussion about sports gambling: