The Georgia Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee revived a proposal to legalize online sports betting on Thursday, though its prospects of passage into law remain uncertain. The committee amended House Bill 237 to include the legality of online betting by early 2024 at the latest in legislation that would not require a voters’ referendum to amend the state constitution.
With the legislative session drawing to a close, lawmakers have taken a last-ditch effort to legalize sports betting by piggybacking the proposal on an earlier bill. The move comes as legalization bills in both the House and Senate failed to pass before the deadline to advance to the opposite chamber. The plan is now in the hands of the Senate: if senators pass the measure, the House of Representatives will need then to approve it as well before it can become law.
In recent years, Georgia has repeatedly attempted to join the 33 states and DC that have legalized sports wagering, but all gambling expansion efforts have been unsuccessful since the state lottery was approved by voters in 1992. This year, however, there is a newfound hope for the cause, as Republican Governor Brian Kemp is open to signing a bill to bring sports betting to the Peach State.
Republican Governor Brian Kemp
But earlier efforts to assemble a winning coalition have failed. The Senate this year voted down one plan that would have legalized betting on sports, including horse races, and another plan that included a constitutional amendment. A House plan, which is backed by Atlanta’s pro sports teams and is most like the plan put forward Thursday in the Senate, never came to a vote before the full House.
The move to heavily amend House Bill 237, which originally designated the Southeast Soap Box Derby in Lyons as the state’s official soap box derby, took the bill’s sponsor by surprise. Rep. Leesa Hagan, a Lyons Republican, asked to have the derby removed from the measure, saying “I don’t want my soap box derby to be associated with sports betting,” as reported by the Associated Press.
Rules allow Georgia lawmakers to change a bill completely. Such a “gut and replace” can bring discarded ideas back to life. Sen. Mike Dugan, a Carrollton Republican, said the move “just set sports betting back five years.”
“When you hijack a soapbox derby and put sports betting on the back of it, every person that was on the fence in the state of Georgia has just now picked a side of the fence,” Dugan said, according to the above-mentioned media. “So I can’t support this.”
But committee Chairman Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican, said the plan was supported by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, which a spokesperson for Jones confirmed. Last week, House Speaker Jon Burns also expressed his openness to the issue. “We don‘t close the door on anything,” Burns, a Newington Republican, said.
House Speaker Jon Burns
The Georgia Lottery Corporation (GLC) would become the new administrator of sports betting in the state, with tax revenues going toward college scholarships and state-funded preschools. Under the new bill, those aged 21 and above and physically present in the state will be able to place bets online through 16 licensed sportsbooks. Retail sports betting, however, would still remain prohibited.
The bill would reserve one license for the lottery and give one to each of Atlanta’s major sports teams: the Braves, Hawks, Falcons, United, and Dream. It would also give licenses to the Masters golf tournament, the Professional Golfers’ Association, and the owners of Atlanta Motor Speedway. Seven licenses would be reserved for betting firms such as DraftKings and FanDuel.
The bill would tax operators at 22%. According to Sen. Derek Mallow, a Savannah Democrat, that was a compromise between earlier 25% House tax rate and 20% Senate tax rate proposals.
Supporters of letting the lottery run sports betting say the plan would not violate the Georgia Constitution’s ban on casinos or pari-mutuel betting. Former state Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton wrote an opinion for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce earlier this year backing the view. But opponents say voters didn’t understand sports gambling to be part of a lottery when they voted in 1992.