Sports betting enthusiasts in Georgia have renewed hope courtesy of Senate Bill 57 – the Georgia Sports Betting Integrity Act – which would legalize online and retail sports betting (through kiosks) and forms of horse racing without amending the state Constitution.
Legal machinations oft get bogged down in lawyerly language, so the mechanism by which SB 57 bypasses the Constitution to legalize Georgia sports betting requires a bit of clarity.
SB 57: Senators slyly simplify the process
The Georgia state Constitution outlaws pari-mutuel betting, a form of gambling where odds change depending on the pool of bettors. It does not, however, state any legal opposition to fixed odds betting, which is how the Georgia Lottery was founded in 1992, and is the basic practice of sports betting. In fixed-odds betting, a bookmaker or other odds-setting entity sets the odds of winning before a sporting event.
With the lottery, lawmakers were confident that it would fall within the legal parameters of the state Constitution, as the lottery is a form of fixed-odds betting. It overcame the hurdles of a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate, and received voter support on a ballot initiative.
The Georgia Lottery has been an institution in the state ever since. By piggybacking on the firmly-entrenched state lottery, sports betting-supporting senators are confident they can end-run the Constitution and legalize sports betting on their own.
The legislation would also allow for fixed-odds horse racing at up to three Type 2 racetracks.
The proposed legislation would require only a simple majority of the House and Senate to advance the bill to Gov. Brian Kemp‘s desk for signage, as opposed to the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment.
In essence, lawmakers are drafting the tailwinds of the Georgia Lottery to finally make sports betting a reality in the state.
An arduous process to amend the Constitution
Amending the state Constitution is no simple feat. To start, lawmakers need two-thirds approval from each chamber to advance a ballot initiative to the governor’s desk. From there, the constitutional amendment would need the support of a simple majority of voters during the next general election. This means that Georgians would not have the opportunity to place legal wagers until 2025 at the earliest, if everything goes according to plan.
SB 57 sails through committee
The Senate Economic Development Committee, on Monday, Feb. 20, voted 8-1 to pass SB 57. The committee relied on the legal opinion of former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton, who framed the above argument distinguishing unlawful pari-mutuel betting from lawful fixed-odds betting. The overwhelming majority suggests that Melton’s interpretation is not a stretch in economic terms.
The committee’s ruling sends Hickman’s legislation to the Rules Committee, where it will be placed on the legislative calendar for debate on the Senate floor if it advances.
Ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Since its inception in 1992, the Georgia Lottery Corporation has been one of the most profitable lotteries in the country, transferring more than $25 billion to the state’s education system. Georgia senators envision riding the lottery’s coattails to a legal and revenue win, as legal sports betting in Georgia would presumptively provide a windfall to HOPE Scholarships and Pre-K education.
Sen. Billy Hickman of Statesboro, a Republican who introduced the bill, believes that legal sports betting could potentially bring close to half-a-billion dollars to state education, and create upwards of 8,500 jobs.
“That’s more jobs than Chick-fil-A has in Georgia, more jobs than Lockheed has in Georgia,”Yahoo!
The hope is that Georgians will recognize the good that the lottery has accomplished since its inception and support the organization helming the state’s sports betting operations.
Despite smooth sailing, concerns on the horizon
While some lawmakers feel confident with their interpretation of the constitution and utilizing the Georgia Lottery to deliver sports betting, others still maintain that any sports betting bill will require a voter-backed ballot initiative. Citing the need for Georgians to weigh in, Athens Republican Bill Cowsert still sees the only path to legal sports betting through the Constitution.
I think it’s only fair if we’re going to make that big of a cultural change in our state to let the people of Georgia to decide to do thatNews 9
Others have expressed concern over a bill that bypasses the Constitution getting bogged down in lawsuits that delay Georgians from placing legal wagers.
Further, while Gov. Kemp has shown support for legalizing sports betting, he has remained silent on the prospect of SB 57. Both the Senate and House Bill 380 circumvent a constitutional amendment, so Kemp’s silence could indicate a preference for the House bill. It could also indicate a hesitation to endorse a constitutional workaround.
In any event, lawmakers are pushing forward with SB 57, which is on to the Rules Committee and possibly the Senate floor for general debate.