The dispute about whether Georgia sports betting legalization requires going in front of voters to amend the state constitution isn’t over yet.
The Senate made a strong statement last week by attaching a constitutional amendment requirement to a Georgia online sports betting bill before passage.
But Rep. Ron Stephens told PlayUSA the Senate action doesn’t mean the House will accept that a constitutional amendment is necessary.
“I think it’s a good conversation that we will carry into the House,” Stephens said. “It absolutely will still be a debate in the House.”
Georgia Senate action surprises industry backers
With a green light from Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, online sports betting operators thought they had a fast track to passing Georgia sports betting legislation through the Senate without a constitutional amendment.
Sen. Clint Dixon introduced SB 386 on Jan. 25. Exactly one week later, it was on the Senate floor.
It was a quick movement given that the Senate already had legislation from Sen. Bill Cowsert seeking to do sports betting with a constitutional amendment.
Cowsert had introduced SB 172 last year. But he had expressed his intention to move the bill in the new year. After the bill carried over into 2024, he advanced it through his Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee on the second day of the legislative session.
With SB 386 heading to the floor, Cowsert rallied support for an amendment that the act would only take effect following ratification of an amendment to the Georgia constitution authorizing sports betting.
Cowsert’s amendment passed by a 34-7 vote, a greater margin than the 35-15 vote for bill passage.
However, Jen Ryan, spokeswoman for the Sports Betting Alliance in Georgia, told PlayUSA that the industry isn’t giving up on doing Georgia sports betting under the lottery without amending the constitution.
“We maintain that online sports betting does not need a constitutional amendment and the bill as proposed is the best playbook for the House to move on. But the overwhelming, bipartisan passage of SB 386 in the Senate is a clear indicator of the growing momentum and enthusiasm for a safe, legal sports betting market in Georgia.
“There is still much work to be done to bring this bill across the finish line and ensure hundreds of millions in funding for Georgia Pre-K. We look forward to working with House members and stakeholders on next steps to enact this meaningful legislation.”
Stephens can go either way on constitutional amendment
The Georgia Senate has now passed sports betting legislation twice (once in 2021), both times with constitutional amendments.
When Stephens first introduced Georgia sports betting legislation, it was without a constitutional amendment. He still supports going in that direction.
“Electronic gaming wasn’t even invented when we did the lottery. I think online sports betting is essentially electronic gaming, just another mode of what we already do online with selling lottery tickets. This is where we get into the conversation of does it need a constitutional amendment because it’s electronic gaming. The lottery already is doing a lot of things that weren’t invented when it was enacted. This is about bringing Georgia electronic gaming up to the 21st century.”
However, Stephens isn’t sure what direction the House wants to go. Entering the session, he told PlayUSA that he planned to join Cowsert in introducing legislation requiring a constitutional amendment.
“I’ve gotten two letters from two very learned people, one from the former chief justice of the Supreme Court telling us we can do electronic sports betting today as a lottery game,” Stephens said. “And another letter attributed to the person who wrote the HOPE Scholarship that gives the opposite opinion. So it’s muddy to say the least.”
Stephens just wants to see Georgia sports betting passed. It’s unclear whether there is the will to pass Georgia sports betting in the House with any language.
“Two years ago when this came to the House, 25 states were doing it. Today it’s 38 with more lined up to come on board as well. I sure don’t want to be the last. We’ve also got some pretty influential folks with the Hawks, Falcons, Braves and others asking us to do this for fan participation.”
Stephens said he will push for the House to include fantasy sports in the bill as well.
“It’s silly to leave those guys on the sideline when clearly they are doing it in Georgia already.”
Resolution needed to enable bill passed
Typically, if a bill requires a constitutional amendment, the legislature first takes up the resolution to put the question in front of voters the next general election. This is because the resolution requires support from two-thirds of the chamber’s membership.
While the implementation bill passed by a significant margin, the Senate will need three more votes to pass the resolution. Approving the constitutional amendment takes 38 of the 56 senators in the full chamber membership.
Now that SB 386 is through to the House with the constitutional amendment requirement, the Senate must put through a resolution to amend the state constitution to permit sports wagering.
Many senators praised the legislation for the revenue it would provide toward Georgia education for HOPE Scholarships and Pre-K funding.
However, by not doing sports betting under the lottery, it opens a debate for the Georgia legislature to earmark sports betting revenues to other places under the resolution.
In Cowsert’s resolution last year, which failed on a senate floor vote, 50% of Georgia online sports betting revenue went to education.
A constitutional amendment also opens up the possibility for sports betting to get combined with other gambling expansions. Some Georgia lawmakers also want the state to legalize casinos and pari-mutuel horse racing.
The only related senate resolution currently on file, SR 538, does combine sports betting and casinos. Attaching sports betting to other gambling issues could lose voters.
There’s also a question as to what happens to SB 386 if the Senate does not pass a resolution to amend the state constitution by the required two-thirds vote.
What’s next for Georgia sports betting
There are three possible committee assignments for SB 386 depending on the will of leadership. Bills passed from the Senate often start in Rules. But Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Smith died last week at age 78. His funeral was Monday.
As a bill to bring revenue to education, it could go to the Higher Education Committee. Last year, that committee advanced a Georgia sports betting bill without a constitutional amendment. Stephens would prefer it start in his Regulated Industries Committee.
“We’ll get it in committee, have a hearing and hopefully get this thing out quickly and into a conference committee,” Stephens said. “That’s where the real magic happens.”
If the House does pass Georgia sports betting, which is a big if given the chamber’s history with sports betting legislation, Stephens expects the House will make changes. That would make the conference committee necessary for the House and Senate to work out their differences on the bill.
“I’m sure there’s going to be some changes,” Stephens said. “They had their opportunity in the Senate and we’ll put our stamp on it in the House.”