The ability to legally place a bet in Georgia on an Atlanta Falcons game and other sports competitions is gaining traction with this week’s filing of legislation endorsed by a powerful coalition of Republican and Democratic senators.
Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a Butts County Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler are banking on getting a majority of lawmakers enticed by the possibility of legalized sports betting raising millions of dollars for the state lottery’s HOPE collegiate scholarship and pre-K programs. Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, is one of five Democratic and seven GOP legislators who are sponsoring Senate Bill 386 that would make it legal to place online and retail sports bets in the Peach State.
Sen. Clint Dixon’s bill treats sports gambling like a lottery game in order to bypass a constitutional amendment referendum that requires support from a two-thirds majority of the Legislature and approval from Georgia voters in November. The bill is likely to be introduced at the next Senate Economic and Tourism Development Committee, which is chaired by GOP Sen. Brandon Beach, who is also one of the bill’s sponsors.
Under the bill, the state would issue 16 sports betting licenses that would be divided among Georgia professional sports teams, the owners or operators of a Georgia-based car racetrack and professional golf tournament or tour. The Georgia Lottery Corp. would own one license while also issuing the seven remaining licenses at a price of $1 million annually. The state would charge a 15% tax on sports betting revenue.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Jones endorsed the idea of opening up Georgia to sports betting. Lobbyists for an international sports betting and gambling company that co-owns online sportsbook BetMGM traveled to Atlanta last fall to pitch legislators on how to gain enough support to legalize retail and online sports betting and other types of sanctioned wagering.
Critics of sports betting have long cited the dangers of a gambling addiction that go well beyond the potential financial pitfalls. There are also doubts about whether avoiding a constitutional amendment will stand up to legal scrutiny.
Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote an opinion last year that legalizing sports betting in Georgia does not require a statewide ballot referendum if it is incorporated into the state’s lottery system.
Mike Griffin, a public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, questioned why legislators endorsing Dixon’s bill want to prevent giving Georgia voters control over sports betting.
“If this type of gambling is so popular then why is there an unwillingness to do so through a constitutional amendment where the people make the final decision,” Griffin said in an email. “I do not believe it is legal to do it this way and I do not believe when the lottery was approved, the people in the state of Georgia intended something like this to be made legal.”
The push for legal sports gambling gained momentum in 2020 when four Atlanta professional sports franchises formed an alliance advocating for sports betting in Georgia. Since May 2018, more than 30 states have legalized sports betting after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 1992 federal law banning commercial sports betting in most states.
In the last couple of years, Georgia’s legislative sessions have ended with failed attempts to legalize sports betting, horse racing, and casinos in combination or as standalone propositions as legislators were divided on everything from the ills of gambling addiction, to how revenue would be distributed, and what forms of gambling to permit.
The fact that a large number of people in Georgia already wager on sports illegally does not justify legalization, Griffin said.
“Something as detrimental as sports gambling made legal will be like putting gasoline on a fire. It will make something that is already bad, just worse,” he said.
The bipartisan coalition sponsoring this year’s measure likely nixes any shot of the Senate adopting another sports betting bill that has stalled in the Senate chamber since Jan. 11. Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Athens Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert, would establish a gaming commission to supervise sports betting that would raise money for scholarships, gambling addiction treatment, and other programs. Cowsert’s bill requires voters to approve a constitutional amendment.
This story was provided by WABE content partner the Georgia Recorder.