How quickly sports betting legislation died during this year’s Georgia General Assembly shows the difficulty in legalizing sports betting in a state where the only form of gambling is the state lottery.
Five pieces of legislation were filed this session: two in the House and three in the Senate. They all dealt with legal sports betting in Georgia but also included various other gambling markets, from pari-mutuel racing to casinos. While some gained traction in their originating chambers, none crossed over to the other chamber by the March 6 deadline.
Georgia’s legislative cycle works in a biennial structure, so that all bills introduced this year can be picked up next year for a second chance to pass. This is the situation that Georgia sports betting legislation now faces.
What went wrong for Georgia sports betting in 2023
One question that weighs heavily on Georgia lawmakers is whether a constitutional amendment is needed to legalize sports betting.
Senators tried a bill, Senate Bill 57, without the need for an amendment, and it was soundly defeated on a 39-17 vote.
Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, put forth Senate Resolution 140, which would have attempted to legalize sports betting via a constitutional amendment. It received a positive majority (30-26) but not the two-thirds majority needed for an amendment to pass.
Despite the failure of both bills, SR 140, the constitutional amendment, received the clear support of the upper chamber, indicating it may be the preferred pathway in the Senate next session.
The same assessment does not apply to the Georgia House.
On Monday, Crossover Day for the Georgia Legislature, House Bill 380, which would have utilized the same constitutional workaround as SB 57, did not even reach the floor for a vote. Previously, House Resolution 210, which would also have amended the state Constitution, died in committee.
That does not necessarily mean that the House showed more interest in the Constitutional workaround than the Senate. What ultimately killed the House amendment was its inclusion of pari-mutuel racing and casinos – both of which were non-starters for Georgia lawmakers.
What the 2023 legislative session highlighted was a lack of overall focus in the push for legalized gambling. Sports-betting-only legislation fared better than legislation that included other forms of gambling, and this should guide lawmakers as they plan for 2024.
How can Georgia move forward on sports betting?
It’s clear lawmakers need to keep the focus on one form of gambling, preferably sports betting. The state does not appear ready to approve a wholesale gambling expansion – sports betting, casino gambling and horse racing wagering.
If lawmakers could get something approved in the 2024 legislative session to amend the constitution to allow for online sports betting and put it before voters in the November 2024 election, that would be the safest route. It’s not realistic to think the state will go from having just a lottery to having all forms of gambling.
Cowsert, whose resolution would have put the issue on the ballot, said before his legislation was defeated that a constitutional amendment is the best route.
“I think it’s only fair,” Cowsert told the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, “that 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 that.”
However, Harold Melton, a former state Supreme Court justice, maintained in an opinion for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce earlier this year that sports betting could be legalized without a constitutional amendment. While that opinion guided legislators to draft constitutional workarounds in Georgia, not enough lawmakers bought into the approach this session.
For and against Georgia sports betting
In addition to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, professional sports teams in Georgia have backed sports betting legislation.
Other proponents see a new revenue stream and say that some Georgia residents are already betting illegally with offshore sportsbooks. Others can cross the state line to bet legally in Tennessee.
“Right now we have unregulated sports betting that’s done underground with bookies, and I would argue that’s more harmful to people,” state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, said during the hearings, according to The Associated Press.
Others say expanding gambling would hurt more than help.
“The issue of gambling is that there’s always a loser,” Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, said during floor debate. “There can never be a winner without a loser if the game is fair, and the other part is the house always wins.”
If more southern states approve sports betting will Georgia follow?
Now that Georgia’s attempt to legalize sports betting has failed, attention shifts to North Carolina and Kentucky, southern states making attempts to legalize it this legislative session.
If those two states legalize, would that put pressure on other southern states to do the same? It would leave Georgia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina, which also has filed legislation, without any legal sports betting. Florida’s attempt is now with the courts after a compact with the Seminole Tribe was thrown out. Mississippi has retail sportsbooks and very limited online sports betting.
Neighboring Tennessee launched sports betting in November 2020, In January it had $410.7 million in handle – the amount of money in bets made – and $36.3 million in revenue.
North Carolina has the best chance at legalizing in 2023 after an attempt fell one vote short last year. It also has retail sports betting at three tribal casinos. A lawmaker in North Carolina was optimistic about approval of the sports betting bill because proponents have been able to better educate legislators and the public since the defeat, and the General Assembly saw new members elected in November.
A possible blue print for next legislative session would be a focused sports betting bill and continued education of the public and lawmakers.