Georgia’s last ditch effort to legalize sports betting this year died in the Senate on Wednesday.
House Bill 237, a gutted and amended soap box derby bill, did not even make it to the Senate floor on the General Assembly’s last session day. This despite a push from Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who wanted lawmakers to take one more crack at Georgia sports betting before the Legislature rested for the year.
In the end, the votes just weren’t there.
Georgia lawmakers will now turn their attention to 2024 and a more focused approach to passing sports betting–or any gambling expansion–legislation.
HB 237 may have been doomed from the start
The early optics of the Senate’s last resort to legalize sports betting weren’t good.
When HB 237 crossed over to the Senate, it intended to designate an official statewide soap box derby. Rep. Leesa Hagan, a first-term legislator and the bill’s sponsor, saw the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee add 45 pages of sports betting content. At that point, Hagan asked that all remaining soap box derby language be removed from the bill.
While the bill passed committee, the manner in which it had been transformed into a gambling bill incensed some lawmakers. Committee Vice Chair Mike Dugan, R-Carrolton, was outspoken during the committee hearing.
“Whoever came up with this idea just set sports betting back five years,” Dugan said. “When you hijack a soap box derby bill and put sports betting at the back of it, every person who was on the fence in the state of Georgia has just now picked a side of the fence.”
At that point, the prospect of reanimating the sports betting discussion, which may have been gaining traction with Burns’ endorsement, faded quickly.
How can sports betting get added to a bill promoting a children’s game?
Some may wonder how exactly the Georgia Senate could get away with tacking sports betting language onto a bill primarily intended to serve children – sports betting being a 21+ endeavor and all.
These “zombie bills” as they’re called when a dead bill gets resurrected and added on to a current one, take advantage of a legal loophole, as the Atlanta Civic Circle noted.
“Since lawmakers are legally allowed to substitute language in bills after Crossover Day, as long as the new language relates to the same Georgia code section, they can graft text from a deceased bill onto a live one,” it said.
In the case of HB 237, the reason sports betting could be added is because, like a soap box derby, it pertained to the section of the Georgia Legal Code addressing “sporting competitions.”
While not technically illegal, zombie bills trouble some lawmakers because they seem to defy democratic principles.
Second time in three years sports betting votes were withheld in retaliation
A sports betting amendment flew through the Georgia Senate in 2021 but got entangled in a partisan conflict involving Lebron James over an unrelated voting rights bill. In the fray, sports betting legislation became collateral damage when Democrats withheld votes on it in retaliation for the Republican-led bill that, Dems argued, limited voting rights.
This year, as reported by Patricia Murphy, Greg Bluestein and Tia Mitchel of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Democrats united against sports betting efforts “to protest the Legislature’s passage of a measure that limits health care treatments for transgender children.”
With the number of socially-conservative Republicans in the Senate who already oppose gambling in any form, losing the support of a large block of Senate Democrats guaranteed the failure of HB 237.
This retaliation marks the second time in two years that sports betting has been sacrificed in political protest.
What’s the best way for Georgia to legalize sports betting?
Senate Bill 57, which, like HB 237, took the constitutional workaround approach to legalizing sports betting, died a few weeks earlier on the Senate floor on a 19-37 vote.
Senate Joint Resolution 140, which took the constitutional amendment route, received a favorable simple majority vote (30-26) but not the two-thirds majority needed and died on Crossover Day.
Between those two approaches, the votes favored a constitutional amendment. However, SR 140 only attempted to legalize online sports betting while SB 57 tried for online sports betting as well as retail kiosks and some forms of horse racing, which may have also cost it votes.
Parsing what exactly Georgia has a taste for in terms of gambling expansion and how they would like to see it administered is presently anyone’s guess.
Perhaps due to this legislative lack of focus, five Georgia Senators put forth Senate Resolution 394, which calls for a committee to explore the need for a gaming commission and assess the best approach to passing any form of gambling expansion in the state.
In the wake of 2023’s many failed attempts to legalize sports betting, casinos and horse racing, such a commission seems like a good idea. However, the fact that this hasn’t been done yet and is only now being considered via legislation seems like a lot of unnecessary politicking.
Georgia has work to do to consolidate its legislative game plan around gambling expansion. However, it did make swift and decisive action in the case of the soap box derby. For Hagan, her soap box initiative got a second chance when all the gutted language from HB 237 was appended to a Senate bill. In a show of bipartisan camaraderie, the amended bill passed the House, 166-0.