Georgia Online Sports Betting Heads Off The Rails

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The odds seemed in favor of Georgia joining the playing field of states which allow online sports betting.  Bipartisan legislation in both the House and Senate was moving forward to give more than an estimated 2 million Peach Tree residents the chance to spend legally in their home state. 

And then the odds flipped.

Time Is Ticking On George Sports Betting

Now with only a few days left for bills to pass the chambers they originated in before they die for the year, efforts to open online gaming access to the state appear to have hit a roadblock: Democrats angry at Republican efforts to curtail absentee balloting have withdrawn their support for the gaming measures. 

On March 1, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill criticized by Democratic and civil rights opponents as restricting voter access.  Republicans argue the bill ensures election integrity. 

If they’re going to try to hurt us at the ballot box, then we need to hurt them with this legislation and not support it,” Bishop Reginald Jackson, who leads more than 400 churches in Georgia, told the Associated Press

But state Rep. Ron Stephens (R), who has sponsored gaming legislation in the House,  told Georgia Public Radio he was confident in the end his bill would move forward.

“This is politics,” he said.

Competing Sports Betting Bills In Georgia

Before the battle over voting rights took center state, legal online gaming was on track in Georgia with multiple measures gaining traction.  

Four Georgia sports teams — the Atlanta Braves of Major League Baseball, the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association, the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League, and the Atlanta United of the Major Soccer League — are on board. 

SB 142, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Mullis (R), would allow for online betting immediately.  It would legalize sports betting within Georgia state lines with certain restrictions, notably a $2,500 cap on monthly deposits into a person’s account, as well as a prohibition against placing wagers on Georgia teams

The measure requires a simple majority in both the House and Senate, and then Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) signature to become law. 

Kemp has not indicated whether he supports the legislation with his office saying he does not comment on pending legislation.

Georgia Referendum Is A Possible Path

A separate proposal, SR 135, co-sponsored by state Sen. Bill Cowsert (R), along with Mullis,  would put the issue forward for a statewide referendum in November 2022. 

Cowsert, chairman of the Senate Regulations and Utilities Committee, said last week he had concerns SB 142 would not pass constitutional muster without statewide approval.

Georgia voters approved a lottery in 1992.  Funds from the lottery are given annually to support scholarships.  The regulations governing the lottery are very specific and some lawmakers and experts are concerned the stand-alone gaming bill would get bogged down in litigation.

It’s a real stretch to call sports betting a lottery game,” Cowsert told local reporters. “We’re on pretty thin ice to convince a court.”

The referendum measure, however, faces longer odds.  Before it goes before voters, it must pass both the House and Senate chambers by a two-thirds majority. 

Republicans control both the House and Senate, but are divided on the issue of online gaming so need Democratic support for the bills to become law. Enough Democrats support the proposals to cross the finish line, but are now withholding that support to express outrage regarding the voting rights bills.

Both  SB 142 and SR 135 passed out of Cowsert’s committee last week and appeared headed for full Senate consideration.  

Companion legislation in the House, HB 86, sponsored by Stephens, passed out of committee last month and was scheduled for a House floor vote last week. It was scuttled when the voting-rights legislation came to a head. 

Stephen’s bill is similar to Mullis’ in that it allows for immediate online gaming, but there are technical differences between the two, including the taxing structure.

Georgia’s legislative year ends in April, but the General Assembly hits ‘Sine Die,’ the half-way point of the session, on Monday, March 8.  This is the last day for bills to pass their chamber and be sent over to the other side of the Gold Dome for consideration. 

By: Mary M. Shaffrey