Future of gambling legislation uncertain in Georgia

Gambling supporters went into 2020 believing it was their year to get legislation passed through the Georgia General Assembly and onto the November ballot to expand legal gaming.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

A House panel late in the 2020 session passed a resolution to pave the way to allow casino gambling, horse racing and sports betting in Georgia, but it never advanced further.

“We’re looking at the possibility of $1 billion a year in receipts that will come into the state,” said House Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican. “It got tangled up during the session last year.”

Proponents of expanded gambling have spent more than six years trying to pass legislation that would allow Georgia voters to decide whether gaming should be expanded past the lottery that was approved in 1992.

Supporters say 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.

“We have been able to defeat any expansion of gambling for six straight years,” said Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “I know that the gambling industry is wanting to expand in Georgia, but the detriment of doing so far exceed the benefits.”

State Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock Republican and a pastor, has been an outspoken opponent of expanding gambling in Georgia. In addition to causing issues with addiction and increased crime, Cantrell said casinos, specifically, have a negative impact on the economy.

“Casinos bring in entertainment, which is subsidized by their gambling revenue, making it difficult for existing (entertainment) venues to compete,” Cantrell said, adding that establishments such as the Fox Theatre and the Woodruff Arts Center oppose allowing casinos in Georgia. “It’s not a level playing field. Do we really want to see some of Georgia’s iconic entertainment venues shut down?”

While some lawmakers say they want the money to help pay for in-state tuition, others want dollars raised by expanded gambling to be dedicated to the state’s health care system. Legislators would have to reach an agreement before the bill could advance.

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

But House Tourism and Economic Development Chairman Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, said it’s possible to pass a sports betting bill without a constitutional amendment. He said he intends to file three pieces of legislation on gambling — a bill that would legalize sports betting and separate resolutions that would require the state constitution be amended to allow horse racing and casino gambling.

That difference is important. A bill only requires that more than half of each chamber support a measure to make it to the governor’s desk. Constitutional amendments need two-thirds of each chamber to clear the General Assembly — a tall ask from the Legislature — and then a majority vote in an election.

“We’ve gotten some opinions from the people that write our bills that sports betting doesn’t require a constitutional amendment, and it’s something people are doing in Georgia already,” Stephens said.

Right now, Georgians can pull up a sports betting website or app on their cellphone and place bets on sports teams — most likely using overseas servers and skirting Georgia’s laws making the practice illegal.

Experts have said sports betting is an industry that’s best paired with other gambling options. It’s not as profitable as other forms of gaming because it pays out a lot of money to the winners. Over 30 years of legalized sports betting in Las Vegas, for example, the industry accounts for 2.5% of the gaming revenue generated for the state.

Billy Linville, a lobbyist with the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, a coalition of four of Atlanta’s professional sports teams, said the organization is confident the Legislature will pass sports betting legislation this year.

“A new state law with strict regulatory requirements will bring significant new revenue to the state, strengthen HOPE scholarships and protect the integrity of professional sports, a multibillion (dollar) industry in Georgia,” Linville said.

A step could be taken toward expanded gambling through changes to the way Georgia Lottery-run coin-operated amusement machines are regulated, where a Senate panel earlier this year supported a lottery pilot program that offers winnings through gift cards. The video gambling machines can be found at gas stations and restaurants across the state.

And sports betting supporters say there’s a way to integrate wagering on games into the existing video gambling system.

“It would be just another game that the lottery controls,” Stephens said.

That doesn’t mean Stephens has given up on casinos — or as he likes to call them, destination resorts. And neither have casino developers.

“We believe a gaming resort in Atlanta would be a significant generator of tourism and will generate much-needed tax revenue for the state of Georgia,” Wynn Development President Chris Gordon said. “Consequently, we support legislative efforts to allow a gaming resort and legalized sports betting, which of course will ultimately be decided by the people of Georgia.”

Commercial real estate broker Rich Lackey said owners have held land in their families for generations waiting for a use to come along that would make selling or developing the land worth it.

“Casinos will pay more money than anyone will ever pay for their property,” he said. “At the same time, these people are pillars of their communities, so the development needs to be beneficial to the community. Any of these casinos come with 3,000 to 5,000 jobs created — at the facility itself and with jobs downstream (such as) slot machine repairs and technology.”

Powell said after all these years of discussion it was well time for Georgia voters to weigh in on the issue.

“I’ve done my job,” he said. “I’ve learned about it — maybe more than I ever need to know about it. But I’ve been adamant that since it’s a constitutional amendment, that means the people of Georgia have got to make that decision.”