Political Gamesmanship Results In Defeat Of Georgia Sports Betting Bills, But Momentum Will Carry Into Next Year

Written By Matthew Kredell on April 1, 2021 - Last Updated on February 21, 2023

The failure of Georgia to pass sports betting legislation before Wednesday’s end of session illustrated the complexities in passing gambling bills.

Even when most lawmakers support the concept of regulating what constituents already are doing, politics can get in the way.

Georgia sports betting bills got tied up in a divisive battle over voting law changes that drew in LeBron James and the NAACP.

While the Republican-controlled Georgia legislative chambers were able to push the election reform bill through party lines, sports betting became part of the fallout.

Democrats couldn’t stop Republicans on the voting bill. But there were enough conservative, religious-minded Republicans who wouldn’t support a gambling expansion for the Democrats to squash Republican-sponsored sports wagering bills out of spite.

“It was an interesting ride this year,” bill sponsor Rep. Ron Stephens told PlayGeorgia. “The whole session was one step forward, one step back. We just left $100 million on the table that could have gone to Hope and pre-K funding.”

How sports betting became part of larger legislative feud

Sports betting wasn’t a partisan issue when it passed the Georgia Senate. Implementation bill SB 142 passed 34-17 and constitutional amendment SR 135 passed 41-10 with bipartisan support.

If approved by voters, the legislation set up online sports betting run through the Georgia Lottery. The bill tasked the lottery with choosing at least six operators. Georgia doesn’t have casinos for brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, though adding casinos was considered in another bill that failed this session.

Stephens, who sponsored a House sports betting bill, took up the fight to get the Senate sports betting bills through. But they quickly got tied up in the contentious debate over voting rights.

This started with the cancellation of a committee hearing to amend and advance the Senate bills the week following the NBA All-Star Game. Republicans pulled their support because, with the game played in Atlanta, the LeBron James-founded More Than A Vote launched a campaign against what it termed as “voter suppression” efforts in Georgia.

Republicans saw this as a way to admonish the sports teams that supported sports betting legislation.

“The professional teams unfortunately need this badly,” Stephens said. “But back on the voter integrity piece, they came out and made some comments at the NBA All-Star Game that negatively impacted the bill.”

Sports world continues to vocalize disapproval

If Georgia Republicans didn’t like what happened with the NBA All-Star Game, they really won’t like what might happen with the MLB All-Star Game.

Major League Baseball scheduled the 2021 baseball showcase for Atlanta. Media reports indicate there have been conversations about moving the game so as not to “alienate” black players.

Three federal lawsuits have been filed against the law, which even got a thumbs down from US President Joe Biden.

The election changes made waves in other sports as well. Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, criticized the law.

Voting bill backlash dooms sports wagering bill

Maybe it would have happened anyway, but putting the sports betting bills with the election reform legislation didn’t seem smart.

Democrat support for sports wagering dried up in the House. Stephens had the bills recommitted to the Rules Committee to make changes to address concerns of Democrats. But it wasn’t enough.

Those changes included a more gradual transfer of lottery reserve funds to Hope Scholarship and pre-K funding, changes in minority participation language, and ensuring that most of the state’s take from sports betting revenue went to a needs-based opportunity fund for education.

“All those changes were made at the last minute to try to get a deal done at the end,” Stephens said. “But the well had already been poisoned pretty badly. There were a whole lot of ill feelings and it just fell apart.”

When the committee sent the bills back to the House floor Wednesday, it appeared a last-minute passage was possible.

But Stephens said opposition from the NAACP made that impossible. The NAACP’s statement on the matter admits that its opposition was not based on the merits of regulating sports betting but that Georgia Republicans had not worked with it on other matters.

“We made some changes that most of the minority had preached,” Stephens said. “But then we started counting votes and there was just no way to get it there.”

Next year could bring same result for Georgia sports betting

Although it’s disappointing for Georgia sports wagering to get so close to passing and fall short, it’s not necessarily a setback.

All will be peachy keen if Georgia passes the same bills next session.

The constitutional amendment can’t go in front of voters until November 2022 anyway. Since this was the first year of Georgia’s two-year session, the legislation carries over.

Essentially, the bills start on third base. Passed by the Senate, they will begin in the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee that Stephens chairs.

By then, hopefully, the weird partisan political drama that derailed sports betting this year will have calmed.

“We can see the finish line,” Stephens said. “Whenever we pass it, and we will pass it, it will go back to the Senate floor and they’ll probably make some tweaks.”

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