Five state Senators have introduced Senate Resolution 394 titled “Senate Study Committee on the Creation of a Robust Wagering Ecosystem in the State of Georgia,” adding another layer of intrigue in a state Legislature sharply divided on legal gambling expansion issues.
A scramble is clearly on as the conclusion of the legislative session on March 29 looms.
The resolution calls for forming a Senate study committee to assess the need for a gaming commission. A commission would help determine how the state might approve Georgia sports betting, casinos and/or pari-mutuel horse racing.
Unlike most states, Georgia’s legal gambling only allows a state lottery that began in 1992. Plus there’s bingo and some raffles. Brian Kemp, the state’s Republican governor, suggested a willingness to expand legal gambling options.
Makeup and function of the Senate study committee
As SR 394 notes, the George General Assembly “has long considered multiple legislative measures to allow the voters of Georgia to decide whether to remove the constitutional prohibition on gambling” – which currently forbids horse racing and casinos in Georgia.
As is typical of bills considering legal gambling expansion, lawmakers are aware many state residents already travel to other states to gamble. That means that gambling legalization could encourage those residents to gamble within state lines, thus boosting tax revenue.
The proposed committee would have 10 members, including the highest-ranking state Senate members and the chairs of the Senate Economic Development and Tourism and the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities committees. The Senate president will appoint another four members.
The committee would hold at least four public hearings across the state, followed by a meeting to finalize various findings. The committee would publish a report shortly before coming to an end Dec. 1, setting the stage for renewed debate on gambling in the Legislature in 2024.
Other betting bills considered this session
Earlier in March, the Senate failed to approve the passage of Senate Resolution 140. SR 140 was a constitutional amendment to allow voters across the state to decide whether to legalize online sports betting. The vote in favor was 30-26, but 38 votes were needed for a two-thirds majority passage.
The timing of that vote was such that it appeared no sports betting approval would take place in 2023. And the new bill backing the creation of a committee, if passed, would all but make that a certainty.
Another Georgia bill (Senate Bill 57) proposed legalizing sports betting and parimutuel horse wagering without a constitutional amendment. However, the Senate rejected it by a 37-19 margin just days before the vote on SR 140.
Gaming law experts such as Florida-based attorney Daniel Wallach, whose expertise on state sports betting measures dates back more than a decade to New Jersey’s pioneering efforts, insist there is no need for a constitutional amendment approved by voters before lawmakers could authorize sports betting. That’s because the state Constitution only forbids pari-mutuel betting, and sports betting is a fixed-odds form of gambling.
Despite the backing of legal experts, Georgia lawmakers looked less favorably upon the Constitutional workaround than the amendment.
Georgia sports betting proponents haven’t given up yet
Backers of sports betting legalization in Georgia remain determined.
A Senate committee drastically amended House Bill 237, designed to declare a local soapbox derby as the state’s “official derby.” The committee added 45 pages of online sports betting authorization rules and stripped the bill of all soap box derby language at the sponsor’s request. The amended bill passed committee and is on the Senate Rules calendar to be heard by the full Senate today.
Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, predicted the maneuver would backfire, telling the Senate committee that “the damage you have just done to the sports betting industry by trying this is unfathomable.”
Being placed on the Senate Rules calendar is no guarantee HB 237 reaches the floor, but because sports betting was revived through an amendment on such an innocuous bill, the indication is that senior lawmakers want it advanced. As such, a final marathon session could bring HB 237 to the floor.
Of Georgia’s neighboring states, only Tennessee has embraced online sports betting. While North Carolina has done so only in a very small fashion – with no online gambling allowed yet – this legislative session may change that for the Tar Heels.
In the absence of a legal Georgia market, the question remains as to what Georgia sports bettors are left with. And with few legal markets in their vicinity, the grim reality is that illegal offshore sportsbooks remain their easiest sports wagering option.