Cowsert Readies Georgia Sports Betting Constitutional Amendment With Funding Changes

Written By Matthew Kredell on February 8, 2024 - Last Updated on February 9, 2024
Georgia Sen. Bill Cowsert

The Georgia Senate passed legislation requiring a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting. Now, it needs the constitutional amendment to go with the bill.

Sen. Bill Cowsert introduced a Senate Resolution on Friday to amend the state constitution to permit the General Assembly to provide for the operation and regulation of Georgia sports betting.

Cowsert attached an amendment to SB 386 requiring the constitutional amendment on the Senate floor last week before the Senate passed the online sports betting bill.

If the Georgia legislature passes Cowsert’s constitutional amendment resolution, state voters will decide on Georgia sports betting in November.

Disbursing Georgia sports betting revenue

Cowsert’s amendment stripped language that required sports betting to be conducted under the Georgia Lottery. Almost all revenue derived from the Georgia Lottery must go to education.

The legislature can lay out exactly where sports betting revenue goes by going through the constitutional amendment. Cowsert’s SR 579 disburses the money as follows:

  • 80% into the Educational Opportunity Fund. Revenue from the fund shall prioritize voluntary pre-kindergarten. If those programs are fully funded, it shall go to college scholarships.
  • 15% to the Responsible Gaming Fund.
  • 5% toward the Sports Promotion Fund for attracting major regional, national and international sporting events to Georgia.

Funding improvements for Georgia Pre-K education is a priority in the General Assembly this session. On the Senate floor, minority-party Democrats praised SB 386 for the difference more than $100 million annually would make in getting Georgian children off the Pre-K waiting list.

Cowsert addressed this focus by increasing the revenue going to education in his resolution. Last year, his constitutional amendment put just 50% toward education.

“I think the lieutenant governor cut a deal with the Democratic Party to allocate money to HOPE Scholarships and Pre-K funding in exchange for their support,” Cowsert said. “So I created a different formula to honor that in my new and improved version of the constitutional amendment that will have at least 80% go to Pre-K.”

As a result, Cowsert took off the 25% that previously went to economic development and reduction of poverty in high-poverty areas and 5% to innovational education.

Constitutional amendment debate rages on

Backed by sports betting operators in the Sports Betting Alliance, Sen. Clint Dixon attempted to move SB 386 quickly through the Senate without a constitutional amendment.

Cowsert has long argued that legalizing sports betting in Georgia requires amending the state constitution. The Senate passed Cowsert’s sports betting bill and corresponding constitutional amendment resolution in 2021 but the House failed to act.

“They tried to do an end run around me and pass this bill that did not have a constitutional amendment, deeming sports betting to be a lottery game. When the bill came to the floor, I simply amended it to make it effective only upon the passage of a constitutional amendment.

“I don’t think anybody in their right mind ever thought lottery could have sports betting as a game just like a scratch-off ticket. At the time we passed our lottery, I know sports betting was illegal nationwide except in Vegas, so I don’t think any Florida voter thought they were approving sports betting when they voted for the lottery.”

Rep. Ron Stephens previously told PlayUSA that he believes the need for a constitutional amendment will continue to be a debate in the House. The House could choose to remove the constitutional amendment requirement. The legislation would head to a conference committee, where Cowsert will likely be a conferee.

The Sports Betting Alliance, made up of top national online sportsbooks, also continues to maintain that Georgia sports betting done under the lottery doesn’t require amending the constitution.

“The Sports Betting Alliance is hell-bent on having their way or the highway, and I don’t get it,” Cowsert said. “They’re basically getting their way on the underlying bill. I don’t know why they’re so insistent on circumventing the voters of Georgia. I guess after they lost on the ballot in California, they are hesitant to put something in front of voters again.”

Dixon told PlayUSA that he’s not opposed to a constitutional amendment but that it could cause issues in figuring out the revenue distribution. Every legislator has their own priorities that need funding. As chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, Dixon would rather keep that money for education under the lottery.

“I’m concerned about a constitutional amendment not because of the changes it makes. Nothing is more American than letting folks choose whether they want to have sports betting in the state of Georgia. But it complicates matters. You need to get two-thirds support from members, and I’m afraid the negotiation on where the funding goes can bog things down.”

Cowsert believes votes there for resolution in Senate

The Senate passed SB 386 by a vote of 35-15. A senate resolution amending the state constitution requires approval from 38 of 56 Senate members. That figure doesn’t decrease if Senate members are absent.

That potentially leaves the constitutional amendment resolution three votes short. But Cowsert said he isn’t worried.

“We know of at least three or four votes that weren’t present on that day. I think we’ll get to 39 or 40 votes. I don’t know what attitude the House will take, whether they’ll agree with the constitutional amendment or stick to their guns and try to pass a bill without one.”

If the legislature passes the resolution, the question put to voters in November would be:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to authorize the General Assembly to provide by law for sports betting in this state and to provide for such proceeds to be used for educational funding for pre-kindergarten and HOPE scholarships, services for gambling addiction, and the advancement and promotion of sports in this state?”

Next steps for Georgia sports betting

The resolution could be assigned to the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which Cowsert chairs, or the Economic Development Committee chaired by Sen. Brandon Beach, who Cowsert said signed on as a co-sponsor of his resolution.

Following Senate passage, SB 386 is in the House, where it was placed Wednesday on House Second Readers. The next step is assigning the bill to a House committee.

Dixon said that Rep. Marcus Wiedower would champion his bill in the House. Last year, Wiedower introduced similar legislation to do Georgia sports betting under the lottery without a constitutional amendment.

Cowsert said he hopes to have his constitutional amendment resolution through committee Tuesday and on the Senate floor for passage Thursday or Friday of next week.

Cowsert provided one last reason the House and Senate should embrace his sports betting constitutional amendment.

“My opinion is it’s easier to get Republican votes under a constitutional amendment because they can essentially say I don’t support gambling, I’m a Holy Roller Christian, but I think we should let the people decide. I’m allowing a public vote.”

Photo by Alex Slitz/AP file photo
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Matthew Kredell

Matthew Kredell serves as senior lead writer of legislative affairs involving online gambling at PlayUSA. He began covering efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling in 2007 after federal passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act disrupted his hobby of playing small-stakes online poker. He has since interviewed more than 300 lawmakers around the country and written extensively about online gambling legislation. He has led coverage of bills to legalize online gambling in most states. A lifelong Angeleno and USC journalism alum, Matthew started his career working as a sportswriter for a decade at the Los Angeles Daily News. He has written on a variety of topics for Playboy Magazine, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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