If not now, when? The year for sports betting in Georgia that wasn’t

Just like every legislative session since 2019, lawmakers swore this was the year that Georgia lawmakers would pass legislation to legalize online sports betting in the state.

And just like every legislative session since 2019, the bill failed to make it across the finish line, despite constant lobbying.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that states other than Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon could allow sports betting, 33 additional states and Washington, D.C., have moved to allow the form of gambling.

The question is if, or when, it will happen here.

Supporters in Georgia thought this was sports betting’s year because it was the first time the Big Three Republicans in the state expressed support. Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones supported sports betting on the campaign trail last year. House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, said he preferred legalizing sports betting over a broader expansion of gambling.

Even when Jones put his muscle behind a renewed effort to pass sports betting legislation, supporters were unable to secure the votes needed to pass the measure.

“I’d like to get it done,” Jones told reporters after the Senate adjourned last week. “I think it’s a miss for us, from a revenue standpoint, that we could be collecting those dollars for the HOPE scholarship. We weren’t able to get the 29 votes we needed, and so we just had to leave it on the table.”

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, shown speaking to the press in the Georgia Capitol after the legislative session ended, said he'd like to see sports betting gain approval in the General Assembly. “I think it’s a miss for us, from a revenue standpoint, that we could be collecting those dollars for the HOPE scholarship," Jones said. "We weren’t able to get the 29 votes we needed, and so we just had to leave it on the table.” (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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 and do not outweigh the moral and social costs of gambling, such as addiction, bankruptcy and crime.

Late in the session, Jones worked with a Senate panel to insert language legalizing sports betting into another bill, but it never got a vote.

Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said it was “amazing” that anyone in the Senate would continue to push sports betting after previous bills on the subject had been earlier voted down.

“It is almost unbelievable that since so many legislators have claimed that the majority of people in the state of Georgia want sports betting, that they would attempt what could be labeled as a ‘sneak attack’ to get it passed,” he said.

As happens each year the topic is debated, the struggle over determining where the money raised through sports betting should go stopped the effort in its tracks, despite a pack of high-priced lobbyists pushing the measure.

When Georgians voted to amend the state constitution in 1992, it required money raised from the Georgia Lottery to be spent on the HOPE scholarship and prekindergarten classes. Expanding the lottery to include sports betting wouldn’t meet Democrats’ desire to direct money for scholarships for lower-income students because the HOPE scholarship is based on academic merit, not on whether a student can afford college.

Also at play are two schools of thought on the legality of expanding gambling in Georgia. Some supporters say gambling can only be expanded in Georgia through a constitutional amendment. Amending the state constitution is difficult because it requires the support of two-thirds of each chamber and then a majority of Georgia voters.

State Sen. Derek Mallow, D-Savannah, said he thinks the lack of communication between the Senate and Georgia House has been the biggest obstacle to passing legislation to allow sports betting in the state. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Other supporters say sports betting should be considered a lottery game and can be legalized without a referendum. Those supporters used a memo from former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton in which he said sports betting is considered an extension of the lottery and the amendment is not necessary. The memo was produced at the request of sports betting supporters.

Analysts in the Capitol have been inconsistent on whether the state constitution allows sports betting. In 2019, the Office of Legislative Counsel recommended passing a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting, citing ambiguity in the state constitution’s definitions.

Twice this session, sports betting measures failed on the Senate floor.

Senate Bill 57 would have deemed sports betting and horse racing a lottery game and did not include a proposed constitutional amendment. Senate Resolution 140 and Senate Bill 172, acting in tandem, would have required voters to weigh in on changing the constitution and direct the state to spend sports betting revenue on needs-based scholarships, addressing poverty, promoting Georgia as a sporting event destination, spurring educational innovation and offering gambling addiction services. SB 140 was voted down.

A third effort, House Bill 380, did not include a provision for a constitutional amendment and would legalize only sports betting. It did not get a vote on the House floor before Crossover Day, the General Assembly’s internal cutoff for legislation to pass at least one chamber, but Jones backed an effort that added similar language to a separate bill about soapbox derby races, House Bill 237.

State Sen. Derek Mallow, a Savannah Democrat who introduced the amendment that added sports betting to HB 237, said the major holdup has been a lack of communication between the two chambers. He served one term in the House before being elected to the Senate last year.

“I’m new to the Senate but not the General Assembly,” he said. “And I think one of the most important things that we can do on the Democratic side, and even on the Republican side, is neither of the folks talk to the folks in the other chamber. That’s always been an issue. Until the two chambers move lockstep in unison on their priorities, it’s not going to work.”

Jones said he wanted the Senate to render a “verdict” on the idea, but when the votes weren’t there to pass HB 231, he opted not to bring the bill to the floor this year.

“Quite frankly, we’d seemingly have the votes and then we wouldn’t have the votes as we were whipping it, both within majority and the minority party,” he said. “It would take both parties working together to get it passed. And we just couldn’t get to the numbers.”

Will next year be sports betting’s year to finally pass, or will 2024 be a repeat? That depends on who you ask.

“I think we’re going to get it done,” Mallow said.

Griffin, who has been fighting the battle against gaming for many years, isn’t so sure.

“I think we will continue to be successful as long as we keep educating legislators and the public that the detriments of gambling far outweigh the benefits,” he said.