Four lawmakers are pushing different versions of legislation aiming to make online sports betting legal in Georgia, and each is taking a different approach to getting it done.
It’s the fifth year lawmakers have attempted to expand gambling in Georgia to include sports betting, an effort that began after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that states other than Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon could allow it.
Yet, each year the bills have struggled to cross the finish line.
Opponents say any form of gambling is immoral, addictive and leads to crime.
Paul Smith, a lobbyist with the religious advocacy group Citizen Impact, said his organization represents pastors and other religious leaders across Georgia.
“State-sponsored gambling, that tends to be predatory in nature, will result in more addictions, more bankruptcies, more broken homes, and those pastors who I represent all across Georgia will be dealing with much of that fallout,” he said at a recent committee hearing.
This year’s batch of bills fall into two categories: those introduced by lawmakers who say gambling can only be expanded in Georgia through a constitutional amendment and those backed by lawmakers who say sports betting should be considered a lottery game and can be legalized without a referendum. Amending the state constitution is difficult because it requires the support of two-thirds of each chamber and then a majority of Georgia voters to get through.
Two bills focus solely on sports betting, and a third would legalize both sports betting and horse racing. All are sponsored by Republican lawmakers and have bipartisan support. A fourth piece of legislation, a resolution filed by House Democratic Leader James Beverly of Macon, would legalize sports betting, horse racing and casinos. Only Democrats are co-signers on Beverly’s bill.
For nearly a decade, before sports betting came into the picture, some lawmakers pushed their colleagues to support the legalization of casinos and horse racing.
“It’s all about competing lobbyists,” said Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist in Georgia. “There’s one group of sports betting people that seems to be interested in only their project all alone. There’s another group of horse (racing) people. And another group of casino people. And each group seems to regard each other with contempt and wants to be the one to pass the bill first.”
Gov. Brian Kemp has said he would work with legislative leaders this year on a measure to allow sports betting — something he previously opposed. When Lt. Gov. Burt Jones was a state senator, he sponsored legislation to make sports betting legal. And House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, indicated he was open to the idea of sports betting.
Supporters have said sports betting could bring anywhere from $30 million to $100 million in revenue to the state each year. Critics have said such numbers are exaggerated.
Senate Bill 57, sponsored by state Sen. Billy Hickman, a Statesboro Republican who breeds and races horses in other states, would legalize online sports betting and horse racing without a constitutional amendment. The Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved Hickman’s bill last week.
“My bill treats all sports the same,” he said. “Horse racing is a sport — just like the Braves, just like the Falcons, just like The Masters. But the difference in our bill is that it creates jobs for rural Georgia. Our study of the economic impact shows they will create about 8,500 jobs and it will be $1 billion a year economic impact.”
Hickman is citing a recent study by Georgia Southern University, done at the senator’s request. Hickman is also relying on a memo from former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton that said sports betting should be considered an extension of the Georgia Lottery, with money going to educational purposes, and therefore does not require a constitutional amendment. Melton’s memo said that making horse racing legal in Georgia would require a constitutional amendment.
When Georgians amended the constitution to legalize the lottery in 1992, the referendum specified that funds must go to the HOPE scholarship and pre-K.
Analysts in the Capitol have been inconsistent on whether the state constitution allows sports betting. In 2019, Legislative Counsel Director Rick Ruskell recommended passing a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting, citing ambiguity in the state constitution’s definitions.
Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow submitted an opinion to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in response to Melton’s memo, saying that the former chief justice’s argument was flawed.
Melton’s memo was requested by the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which supports sports betting legislation. The chamber is part of a coalition of groups, including Atlanta’s professional sports franchises, that backs House Bill 380, sponsored by Watkinsville Republican state Rep. Marcus Wiedower. That bill, too, does not include a provision for a constitutional amendment, but it would legalize only sports betting. The House Higher Education Committee on Monday approved Wiedower’s bill.
“This is the only clean bill that will legalize safe, secure sports betting in Georgia while immediately generating funding for education — resulting in a clear win-win for Georgia residents and students,” Wiedower said.
Other lawmakers say a constitutional amendment is required not only to allow sports betting in the state but to give the state the ability to spend money on things other than HOPE and pre-K.
Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican and attorney, said the only legal path for sports betting in Georgia is through a constitutional amendment.
He is sponsoring Senate Resolution 140 and Senate Bill 172, which would ask voters to amend the constitution to allow sports betting and create a gaming commission to regulate the form of gambling, respectively. His committee approved SR 140 last week and is expected to vote on SB 172 some time this week.
“I think it is disingenuous to now call sports betting a lottery game for the express purpose of circumventing the people, of denying the people a say in this,” he said. “I don’t think that, as legislators, we ought to work around the will of the people.”
Cowsert’s resolution would spend sports betting revenue on needs-based scholarships, addressing poverty, promoting Georgia as a sporting event destination, educational innovation and gambling addiction services.
Beverly said he wants to direct the money to places other than HOPE and pre-K. His legislation, House Resolution 210, would dedicate money for a variety of purposes in the state budget, such as tourism, economic development, and cultural and performing arts. His bill is unlikely to get any traction in the Republican-controlled House.
Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“There’s so many different ways in which this money can be allocated,” Beverly said. “Education is one part of it, but when we think about it comprehensively, what are the things in Georgia right now that we need to invest in?”