Senate Resolution 140 and Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, would have asked voters to amend the constitution to allow sports betting and create a gaming commission to regulate it, respectively.
Because SR 140 would have amended the constitution, it required support from two-thirds of the members in each chamber — or 38 votes in the Senate. The resolution failed 30-26, and senators opted not to vote on SB 172.
The Senate also voted last week against Senate Bill 57, which would have legalized sports betting and horse racing without first amending the constitution. Amending the state constitution is difficult because in addition to requiring two-thirds support in each chamber, it also must win approval from a majority of Georgia voters.
Cowsert said while he was disappointed in the vote on his bill, the Senate has made clear that it does not want to legalize sports betting this year.
Analysts at 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 Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton said in a memo that 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.
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. Cowsert agrees.
“I felt like some people were probably nervous that the state of California voted down sports betting this past fall,” Cowsert said, pointing to a referendum that failed last year in that state. “And I think that’s one reason suddenly people began coming up with ways to work around the constitution. That’s not fair. That’s disingenuous to our own voters.”
Sports betting’s backers began the session with support from powerful leaders that was lacking in the past.
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 — some who oppose gambling because they say it is immoral, addictive and leads to crime — have said such numbers are exaggerated.
Senators approved a bill that is similar to SR 140 in 2021 with a 41-10 vote. Several lawmakers who supported the 2021 legislation voted against Cowsert’s bill this time around — including state Sen. Billy Hickman, a Statesboro Republican who sponsored SB 57, the sports betting bill that failed last week.
Hickman said while he supports sports betting, he couldn’t vote for SR 140 because passing a bill without a constitutional amendment was the appropriate procedure.