Is LeBron James The Reason Sports Betting Stalled In Georgia?

Posted By Matthew Kredell on March 23, 2021

Georgia sports betting legislation stalled in response to a LeBron James-led effort to bring attention to Georgia voting bills during the NBA All-Star Game.

With the All-Star Game played March 7 in Atlanta, the James-founded voting rights advocacy group More Than A Vote sought to “shine a light on voter suppression in Georgia.”

According to Rep. Ron Stephens, this offended Georgia Republicans who see their bills as providing voter protections.

Stephens chairs the House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism, which later that week was scheduled to consider sports betting bills passed in the Senate.

The committee hearing was canceled at the last minute. Stephens tells PlayGeorgia the cancelation was because some Georgia Republicans pulled their support for advancing the bills after athletes spoke out against their voting measures at the NBA showcase.

“At the NBA All-Star Game here in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, everyone locked arms and came out as professional basketball players against our voting bills. Some people just didn’t like that. In Georgia, we’ve done so much for our professional teams. To get the Super Bowl here, we acquiesced and eliminated sales tax on tickets so the NFL could keep the money. We’ve really bent over backward, and some folks felt it was a little bit like their hand had been bitten.”

How social justice became at odds with sports betting

Earlier this month, each chamber of the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature passed a bill attempting to make major changes to the state’s voting laws.

Monday, a House committee advanced S 202 with changes. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the bill could come up for a House vote as soon as Thursday. The paper details that the measure would:

  • Limit absentee ballot drop boxes to locations inside early voting sites during regular hours.
  • Require a driver’s license number, state ID number or other documentation to request and cast an absentee ballot.
  • Expand weekend voting to two mandatory Saturdays and two optional Sundays.
  • Set a deadline to request an absentee ballot 11 days before election day.
  • Prohibit food from being distributed to voters waiting in line.

More Than A Vote makes the case that these changes are being made to suppress votes from African Americans. Stephens disagrees.

“To say our voting bills are suppressing votes, that’s just not true,” Stephens said. “But if people say it enough, that lie becomes truth.”

Georgia sports teams have pushed hard for sports betting to help them reengage with fans who haven’t been able to attend games and rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill authorizes the Georgia Lottery Corporation to license at least six online sports betting operators.

“You hate that these are two different issues that got tied up,” Stephens said. “I wish some of these professional teams would entertain and not get into politics because it really messes things up.”

House changes to Georgia Senate sports betting bill

Stephens said the House intends to change a few items in the bill sent over by the Senate to match the bill he introduced.

This includes raising the tax rate to 20% from 16% in the Senate bill, and what he calls some “small technical changes.”

“Theirs is going to raise $50 million, ours $100 million,” Stephens said. “There were those on our side who said they thought we should at least have the Tennessee tax rate. They’re our closest neighbor and they’ve done well there, so I’ll go back and put 20% and see if we can agree on it.”

The Georgia Senate bill prohibits wagers on in-state college teams such as the Georgia Bulldogs.

Stephens said he understood that not allowing wagers on Georgia college teams could keep some Georgians betting in the illegal market. However, he thinks the limited ban needs to be in the bill for it to have a chance to pass.

“For us to fight chancellors of these colleges would be an uphill battle,” Stephens said. “For me, I want to get this thing started. I agree, if we’re going to have legal gambling, to force people into the illegal market is silly. But we have to take this first step to make sports betting legal, then maybe we can come back and tweak the rules down the road.”

Debate on constitutional amendment settled

Stephens said the House will accept the Senate’s demand that sports betting in Georgia require a constitutional amendment.

He explained that the opinion from the legislature’s chief legislative counsel indicated it could go either way.

Stephens doesn’t think it should require a constitutional amendment. However, the Senate decided that it does and the House is willing to follow.

“The Senate decided to take the route of a constitutional amendment, and I’m OK with that,” Stephens said. “It removes all doubt, if there is any, that this can be legal. It just takes an extra year. Some might say that’s a loss of $100 million that could go into Hope Scholarship and Pre-K funding. But for me, it’s just a matter of getting a bill passed.”

It could sway the vote of some lawmakers on the fence about legalizing sports betting. All they have to do is vote to let Georgians decide.

However, it’s now a higher threshold to get the bill passed. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote in the legislature. That means the House needs to find an additional 29 votes, from the 91 of a majority up to 120.

Will Georgia pass sports betting legislation in 2021?

It’s coming down to the wire before the Georgia legislative session ends March 31.

Stephens hopes to pass the bill March 29 to give some cushion. He rescheduled the canceled committee hearing for today at 3:30 local time.

“I believe we’ll have a vote, but it could come down to the last day of the session,” Stephens said. “We’re still whipping our votes to try to figure out where people are now that there’s a constitutional amendment, to see if we can get it done.”

Stephens expects Georgia legislators will get past the demonstration at the NBA All-Star Game.

“Some of these bruised feelings may be healed over by then,” Stephens said. “Once those feelings ease over, I think we’ll move on with the issue at hand, which is to get this thing passed.”

Needing a two-thirds vote and with the recent drama surrounding the bill, Stephens admits that the effort is an underdog. But he doesn’t think it should be.

“This is a no-brainer in my mind. The money is already there, people are already doing it, and they’re not going to stop it. It’s like found money. If you’re walking down the street and find a $20 bill, most people will pick it up. If somebody votes no on this measure, I can see a future campaign saying he voted to refuse Hope Scholarship money. Because this is money for education we’re losing today that we could capture.”

Photo by AP / Evan Agostini
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