Ralston Proposes Broad Constitutional Amendment For Gambling Expansion In Georgia

Written By Derek Helling on January 12, 2022 - Last Updated on January 28, 2022
Skyline In Atlanta Georgia For News Change On Gambling

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston thinks people in his state want some action on gambling expansion this year. He just isn’t ready to commit to exactly what that will or won’t include yet. That’s why his Georgia gambling ballot measure proposal is lacking for definition.

If approved by a supermajority of the legislature and a majority of registered voters in GA, it would empower legislators in Atlanta to create a legal framework for more gambling than just the Georgia Lottery. At this point, though, that could be anything. That’s what makes Ralston’s proposal unique.

Going for broad appeal to open the door to negotiations later?

Ralston has read the room and appears to be on board with making expansion happen soon.

“There is an appetite this session that I haven’t seen before to do something,” Ralston told members of the media last week. “Maybe it’s time that we asked the question of Georgians whether they want to expand gaming, and if they say yes, then we sit down and decide what form it will take, whether it’s going to be sports betting, whether you do horses or destination resorts.”

However, Ralston isn’t proposing a broad amendment that would include all of the above. Instead, his constitutional amendment proposal would essentially give the power of deciding which forms of Georgia gambling will and won’t be legal in GA to the legislature. Currently, the state’s voters have that sole discretion.

That’s how the GA Lottery became legal in 1992. According to the state’s constitution, the legislature and voters can amend the document with a 2/3 vote of both chambers and a simple majority of the state’s voters.

Ralston’s measure could have broad support among his colleagues. Because it doesn’t exclude any possibilities but rather theoretically opens the door to everything, it effectively circumvents the debate over what forms of gambling should become part of the next expansion.

It’s also a way for members of his party to avoid a sensitive issue in an election year. Conservative voters tend to hold more disapproving views of gambling than other voters. The narrative is we’re simply allowing the people to express their will rather than supporting gambling.

If the voters do amend the state’s constitution in this way, 2023 could be an active year for lobbyists in Atlanta. With nothing off the table, everyone will want a piece of the action.

What might happen with a new amendment in place

To get an idea of what might occur after Ralston’s proposal would become part of the state’s constitution, it’s only necessary to look at actual history. Recent years have seen increased activity on this front.

Last year, two proposals cleared the body opposite Ralston. The GA Senate approved a ballot measure and accompanying regulatory legislation for GA sports betting. However, neither proposal got the requisite votes in Ralston’s chamber.

Proposals to legalize casinos and racetracks have also surfaced but have made less headway. There are over 30 paid lobbyists representing gambling forms active in Atlanta currently. They don’t all represent a unified voice, though.

Like those representing Atlanta sports teams, some have pushed for an online-only form of sports betting like that which exists in neighboring Tennessee. Their proposal makes no provision for retail wagering, horse betting, or brick-and-mortar casinos.

Other lobbyists represent those brick-and-mortar casinos. So far, no one has pushed for online casinos, online lottery sales, online poker, or video lottery terminals yet. In a wide-open landscape, as Ralston would create, those become a possibility.

It’s unlikely that GA would go from a state with only in-person lottery sales to one of the most wide-open jurisdictions for gambling at once. Georgia sports betting seems to have the most momentum behind it.

Thus, that’s probably most likely to be included. The big question is whether it would be alone. Of course, Ralston’s is bound to be just one of several proposals this year. As he said, there’s an unprecedented appetite.

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Competing Georgia gambling ballot measures

The big downside to Ralston’s proposal for gambling companies is that it adds time to the clock. Even if successful, voters wouldn’t have their say until November. Then, forming a regulatory framework for whatever expansion would encompass could take the better part of 2023.

At best, online sportsbooks would probably be looking to take bets sometime in late 2023 or early 2024. That’s if everything moves along quickly, too. Any deadlock over any of the issues pushes that back even further.

As lobbyists are in the state capitol now, they might prefer more well-defined proposals. Last year’s package that passed the Senate is a good example. It specified online sports betting as the target of the expansion.

Because that package contained both the enabling and regulatory language, that would hasten the timeline. Sportsbooks might be looking at an early- or mid-2023 launch instead. For that reason, other proposals might be lobbyists’ preferred options.

A proposal that excludes other forms of gaming might face competition and resistance, though. Ralston’s Georgia gambling ballot measure might be the common ground in that instance. In the end, though, all it might accomplish is delaying the debate.

Photo by Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a lead writer for PlayUSA and the manager of BetHer. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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