While another legislative session leaves Georgians without legal sports betting, the 2023 failure illuminated areas for lawmakers to focus on moving forward and may not represent much of a setback at all.
The Georgia General Assembly saw multiple sports betting bills in both chambers, but came to a close without passing a legal sports betting bill once again. It’s an outcome Georgians are frankly used to at this point — frustrating, to be sure, but familiar given the strong political opinions on the matter.
Georgia sports betting enthusiasts must now wait for 2024, which, when considering the likely scenarios for legalization, doesn’t shift expectations very much.
The Constitutional workaround didn’t gain traction
Some Georgia lawmakers latched on to the opinion of legal experts such as former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton, who believed that a Constitutional amendment would not be required to adopt legal sports betting in the state. The rationale being that the Georgia Constitution, which outlawed pari-mutuel wagering, would not need to be changed to legalize sports betting. This is because sports betting is not a form of pari-mutuel wagering but fixed-odds wagering, like the Georgia Lottery.
This legal interpretation led to the drafting of three bills: Senate Bill 57, House Bill 380, and zero-hour zombie bill House Bill 237.
All embraced the thought that, by legalizing sports betting through a legislative statute, only a simple majority vote in each chamber and the governor’s signature would be required to pass a sports betting bill, and a voter-backed amendment to the State Constitution would be unnecessary. Further, lawmakers envisioned legal sports betting signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp as early as this year.
SB 57 was voted down handily in the Senate, and neither HB 380 nor HB 237 reached the floor for debate. With such results, it appears that Georgia lawmakers do not see the constitutional workaround as a viable legal option to fast track legal sports betting in Georgia
Looking forward to the 2024 General Assembly, the fate of this trio of bills should serve as a warning to lawmakers that any proposed sports betting bill will advance further through the conventional means of a constitutional amendment, a two-thirds majority in each chamber and approval by voters in the next general election.
Georgia’s biennial structure plays into the constitutional amendment route
With the understanding that the Legislature has no appetite to bypass the Georgia State Constitution, the likely way forward for sports betting in Georgia will require a constitutional amendment. With that in mind, the only bills that stand a chance at legalization would require a ballot initiative backed by Georgia voters, such as Sen. Bill Cowsert’s Senate Resolution 140.
The state’s biennial legislative structure allows a bill that fails to pass either or both chambers in the first year to be retooled and revisited in the following year. Moreover, amendments to the Constitution can only be placed on the ballot during general election (even-numbered) years, meaning that a sports betting bill passed in 2023 wouldn’t have reached the electorate until November 2024 anyway.
Thus, while Georgians can’t celebrate a legal sports betting bill in 2023, the 2024 General Assembly will be on the same timeline should a sports betting amendment receive a two-thirds majority in both chambers.
A full year to refocus
None of this is meant to mince words.
Georgia’s failure to pass sports betting legislation is an extreme disappointment, especially when Kentucky got its bill over the finish line, and neighbor North Carolina is making significant progress with its legislation. Georgians can only watch while others in the region place legal wagers, and their state budgets are buoyed by an influx of sports betting tax revenue.
There’s a full year to refocus and regroup, however, and if Georgia legislators are committed to passing sports betting legislation, they have the benefit of time to craft a strategy and draft legislation that stands a chance in the General Assembly.
Late this past session, a group of pro-sports betting senators proposed Senate Resolution 394 with a 2023 retrospective in mind. They advocated for a study committee to determine whether a gaming commission was needed to implement legal sports betting in Georgia and potentially establish a pathway for passage in 2024.
While SR 394 failed to advance out of the Senate, the approach pointed to the need for focus and consolidation in gambling legislation. The 2023 assembly put forth casino, horse racing and sports betting bills, showing where Georgians had a taste for legal gambling (stand-alone online-only sports betting) and where they didn’t (casinos).
2024 could prove critical to sports betting in Georgia
Next year will be a pivotal one for legal sports betting in Georgia. With constitutional workarounds failing to gain traction, an amendment to the Constitution could be placed on the ballot for voters within months after the legislative session ends. When viewed through that lens, 2023’s failure wasn’t as large a setback as it seems on its face.
With an entire year to study and prepare, lawmakers seeking to adopt legal sports betting in Georgia should enter the 2024 General Assembly on proper footing to bring sports betting to the ballot.
Looking ahead even further, if 2024 doesn’t pan out and Georgia lawmakers do not come around to a constitutional workaround, Georgia’s biennial structure would not see a sports betting amendment pass into law until at least 2026.