Sports betting supporters gear up for Georgia legislative session

Backers of online sports betting are heading into this year’s legislative session with high hopes that the General Assembly will finally pass legislation to make gaming legal in Georgia.

It’s been more than four years since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the door for states to legalize sports betting, and though there has been legislation introduced in every legislative session since, those efforts have failed to make it out of the Capitol.

But sports betting supporters say they feel good about their chances this year with an ally in the lieutenant governor’s office and support from the governor’s office. Starting his second term, Gov. Brian Kemp has said he would work with legislative leaders on a measure to allow sports betting in 2023 — something he previously opposed — and Lt. Gov.-elect Burt Jones has previously sponsored legislation to make sports betting legal.

“I’ve been consistent about the positive return and revenues that safe, secure and legal sports betting could generate for our state — and look forward to working with the General Assembly to hopefully make it a reality this upcoming legislative session,” Jones said.

Opponents say any form of gambling is immoral, addictive and leads to crime, and they promised a fight.

If a referendum asking Georgians whether they want to allow expanded gambling is passed during the two-year session, it would go before voters in 2024.

Many lawmakers disagree on which types of gambling should become legal in Georgia — with talk of casinos and horse-racing facilities having also swirled under the Gold Dome for nearly a decade. Casinos, sports betting companies and sports teams have hired top lobbyists to push the bills in hopes of expanding gaming beyond the state-controlled lottery.

For years, lawmakers have said expanding gambling in the state would bolster Georgia Lottery-funded education programs such as the HOPE scholarship.

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 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.

Disagreement over where the tax revenue generated from sports betting, or any legalized gambling, should go has held the legislation up for years.

Options that have been considered include using the revenue to bolster the merit-based HOPE scholarship, paying for needs-based college scholarships, and funding rural health care and broadband efforts across the state.

Backers 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.

Mike Griffin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said his organization will continue to fight the expansion of any type of gambling.

“They say it’s better to legalize it to bring it out of the shadows,” he said. “I think it’s more like pouring gas on a fire rather than putting water on it.”

Last year, a bill seemed primed to pass the General Assembly, but it was tanked at the last minute in the powerful House Rules Committee, which decides which bills are eligible for a vote. Some members of that committee didn’t like the idea of money raised by taxes on sports gambling going toward needs-based scholarships for what Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, called “gap funding,” when a student is accepted to college but is just a little short of the money needed to attend.

House Democratic Leader James Beverly of Macon said Democrats are adamant that a portion of the money raised through gambling go to education, both college and prekindergarten classes. Beverly also said some of the money should go to workforce and economic development.

There are other details that need to be worked out. Some lawmakers say voters should decide whether they want to expand legal gambling in Georgia, and then details — such as where the money is spent, how companies would be taxed and who would oversee gaming — would be finalized later. Others say the details should be worked out if not first, then at the same time as passing the constitutional amendment.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch said gambling likely won’t be one of the Senate Republican caucus’ priorities. But he said sports betting has a chance of passing this time around. The Dahlonega Republican voted against the sports betting bill that passed his chamber last session. He voted for legislation that would have allowed horse racing, but that bill failed to get two-thirds of the vote in the Senate.

“The first question you have to ask is, ‘Will you let the voters of Georgia decide to amend the constitution to allow (expanded gambling)?’ ” he said. “If the answer is yes, then the question is what is the best policy to have in place.”

Beverly said he is working on legislation that would create a governing authority to oversee gaming in Georgia.

“Before we hash out the details of the type of gambling, we need to establish an authority that has the legal authority to maintain and monitor whatever forms of gambling are to come,” he said.

It’s still unclear how much money companies would pay for sports betting licenses, what those companies should be taxed and whether betting on college sports should be allowed.

Gooch said legislation to legalize sports betting is the most likely form of gambling to emerge from the General Assembly during the next two-year session.

“You almost have to hit the reset button,” Gooch said. “There are a lot of freshmen coming in, and they need to understand the importance of what’s best for Georgia and what do their constituents want them to do. That’s the hard part.”