Legalized sports betting, horse racing quick out of the gate as Georgia Senate readies opening bid
A Georgia Senate committee is expected to consider a bill next week that opens the door to legalized online sports betting.
Republican Sen. Billy Hickman’s SB 57 is the first of what could be several gambling bills up for consideration this year after failed attempts in recent years.
In the bill, a Georgia Sports Betting Commission would be created and regulated by the Georgia Lottery Corp. The measure would allow the state to bring in new revenue from betting licensing and taxes for educational purposes, including strengthening the HOPE Scholarship and the Pre-K school programs that the lottery has been supporting for nearly 30 years.
Sen. Brandon Beach, who chairs the Senate Economic and Development Tourism Committee, said he expects Hickman to present the so-called Georgia Sports Betting Integrity Act next week.
The bipartisan bill is signed by Beach and six other members of the Senate committee, which would be enough to move it to the gatekeeping Senate Rules Committee.
In this bill, online sports betting is proposed, as well as licensing for three horse tracks where gamblers can also wager over self-service kiosks or at betting windows. Casino enabling legislation is also often filed by Georgia lawmakers without success.
If the new Senate bill passes, people could place sports bets on their phones, tablets, and machines that are licensed by the state and located in venues like where the teams play.
“It would also bring in some revenue but the reason I want it is for the sports teams and for the fans that want to be able to place a bet on their phones and at the games,” said Beach, an Alpharetta Republican.
For years, long-standing opposition among professional sports leagues blocked legalization of sports gambling outside of Las Vegas. The U.S. Supreme Court opened up sports betting nationwide with a 2018 ruling. And the rise in popularity of fantasy sports has delivered a financial windfall for professional leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Those leagues now lobby for states to expand legalized betting on sporting events. One study by Pew Research found that one in five Americans said in 2022 that had placed a sports bet within the last 12 months.
Sports betting has contributed to the treasuries of 22 states, including Tennessee, which has generated $74 million since November 2020 from online gambling taxes.
The Georgia Baptist Convention is staunchly opposed to expanding gambling in the state beyond the Georgia Lottery.
Mike Griffin, spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Convention, said Wednesday at the state Capitol that gambling addiction should not be ignored in favor of more revenue.
Griffin said that while Georgia lawmakers are making advances in improving mental health services, some of that progress could be thwarted by easing a path to gambling addiction and the socioeconomic ills associated with gambling.
“It will be like putting gas on a fire. It’s just going to make it worse,” Griffin said. “Addictions are going to go up, mental illnesses are going to go up. The impact on children is going to go up and the cost to the state and on the taxpayer is going to go up.”
According to a statewide poll conducted last fall by the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia, 45.6% of likely voters surveyed favored making online betting on professional sports legal in the state and 42.6% opposed with 11.8 answering “don’t know.” Meanwhile, casino gambling in that survey was supported by 60% of respondents.
A gambling expansion bill that would have asked voters to decide whether to allow online sports betting in the state, but not other types of gambling like casinos and horse racing tracks passed the Senate last year, stalled in the House Rules Committee.
During his campaign to expand gambling to include horse racing and casinos in addition to sports betting, Savannah Republican state Rep. Ron Stephens says the same legislators opposing more forms of betting would not shut down the Georgia Lottery, which has generated $26 billion in revenue for education in the state since its inception.
However, legal battles might follow if sports gambling passes the Legislature without a referendum vote of Georgians.
This year’s early version of gambling legislation doesn’t call for a referendum that would give Georgia voters the final say on whether to amend the constitution to allow for sports betting.
The former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Harold Melton, has said Georgia lawmakers are legally empowered to pass legislation that ends Georgia’s prohibition on sports betting without a state referendum.
Griffin said that expanding gambling without a statewide referendum indicates the measure’s sponsors are unsure it will be supported by the majority of voters and lawmakers. In order to add constitutional amendments to a ballot, at least two-thirds of Georgia lawmakers would need to approve the resolution.