Key Georgia House And Senate Lawmakers Align On Sports Betting Push

Written By Matthew Kredell on January 11, 2024
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Georgia sports betting legislation is already on the move in 2024 with the destination unknown.

Two key Georgia lawmakers are working together to try to steer a constitutional amendment and implementation language focused solely on bringing sports betting across the finish line and putting the issue in front of state voters in November.

Sen. Bill Cowsert took quick action on Tuesday, the second day of the legislative session, by advancing SB 172 through the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee he chairs following an hour discussion.

Rep. Ron Stephens sat in on the Senate committee. Stephens told PlayUSA that he would file a similar bill in the House without a constitutional amendment.

“When the lottery was formed 2 1/2 decades ago, cell phones and readily available internet were not even available for gamers,” Stephens said. “My bill just brings us up to the time with electronic gaming and sports betting.”

Georgia sports betting bill details

Cowsert and Stephens are the two Georgia legislators who have spent the most time on sports betting legislation over the years. Cowsert said he was attending conferences for the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States to learn how to improve the Georgia lottery when the US Supreme Court overturned PASPA. He developed his legislation himself with what he learned at NCLGS.

Cowsert was able to move SB 172 so quickly because the bill carried over from last session, when it was tabled. The bill advanced by the committee has largely remained unchanged since last year. Key details include:

  • At minimum of six untethered online sports betting licenses costing $1 million annually.
  • Allows the Georgia Lottery Corp. to offer a sports betting app.
  • Creates the Georgia Gaming Corp. under which the Georgia Sports Betting Commission will regulate the activity. If Georgia legalizes casinos and parimutuel wagering in the future, commissions to regulate those industries would fall under the Corporation.
  • Retail sports betting kiosks through the lottery.
  • A tiered tax rate of 25% on parlay bets, prop bets and live bets, then 20% on regular wagers. Taxes promotional credits.
  • Allows college sports betting but prohibits prop bets on college players.
  • Limits sports betting deposits to $2,000/month. Georgians wanting to bet more can seek clearance to do so from the Georgia Gaming Corporation by showing they can afford it.

SB 172 advanced without its enabling legislation, the constitutional amendment to bring the question of legalizing sports betting in front of Georgia voters. SR 140 died last year when it lost a 30-26 vote on the Senate floor (with 38 votes needed for the two-thirds support necessary to pass a constitutional amendment).

Sen. Carden Summers, the committee’s vice chair, said he would introduce a constitutional amendment later in the session.

Stephens said he wouldn’t necessarily introduce a companion bill to Cowsert’s but would use the senator’s proposal as something to build on in the House. Cowsert noted in the committee that he and Stephens have a similar vision in creating the Georgia Gaming Corp. to govern future Georgia gaming expansions.

Hoping to settle constitutional amendment issue

Last year, Stephens backed the House effort that attempted to do sports betting without a constitutional amendment. Backed by an industry that didn’t want to wait another year for Georgia sports betting, House lawmakers cited an opinion from former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Howard Melton that sports betting didn’t need a constitutional amendment if done under the state lottery.

“There have been a few people trying to find ways to circumvent that requirement of a constitutional amendment,” Cowsert said in committee. “I don’t see anything to fear from a constitutional amendment. I think if you make a policy change like this, it ought to have the buy-in of both parties and the citizens ought to be on board.”

Cowsert stated that doing sports betting with a constitutional amendment is the safe play. He contended that moving forward without a constitutional amendment would lead to protracted litigation.

“From my legal analysis, I agree with a version that this requires a constitutional amendment,” Cowsert said. “I just think it’s a real stretch to call sports betting a lottery game when that certainly was not a case at the time when we created our constitutional exception to allow lotteries.”

Lawmakers can determine where to direct revenue in a constitutional amendment. Otherwise, revenue must go to the general fund. In last year’s constitutional amendment, Cowsert earmarked 15% of state tax revenue to problem gambling treatment.

And although passing a constitutional amendment requires reaching a higher vote threshold, Cowsert believes more lawmakers are comfortable letting voters decide if they want sports betting.

“There are a lot of particularly conservative Republicans that are very hesitant to support gambling because their constituents aren’t all in on this. And it is much easier to say I will vote to allow the public to decide on sports betting, although I don’t particularly participate in it. More of a libertarian take on it.”

More bills coming in Georgia House, Senate

The first step toward Georgia sports betting passage requires lawmakers to get on the same page behind one effort.

Last year, legislators were split behind three efforts.

Some wanted sports betting without a constitutional amendment. Others wanted sports betting with a constitutional amendment. And a third group wanted a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting, brick-and-mortar casinos and pari-mutuel wagering.

Stephens is hoping that legislators can at least get on the same page about doing a constitutional amendment. With the election this November, the only downside is in thinking Georgia voters won’t support legalizing sports betting.

“At this date, I have heard of no one in an election year who is willing to do this without a constitutional amendment,” Stephens said.

Georgia Sen. Brandon Beach has said he will file legislation seeking to amend the constitution to allow sports betting, casinos and pari-mutel betting on horse races.

Stephens said there was also a faction in the House seeking the larger gambling expansion. He expects Rep. Alan Powell, chair of the House Regulated Industries Committee, to file that legislation.

Georgia sports betting prospects cloudy

PlayUSA projected Georgia as having a 40% chance to pass sports betting legislation in 2024, but that could be optimistic.

There’s still a lack of agreement on the path forward among Georgia lawmakers.

And the state doesn’t need the money at this time. Georgia has $16 billion in general fund reserves. Cowsert said that sports betting would bring Georgia annual revenue between $50 million and $75 million. Beach has said all three gambling expansions could bring $900 million annually.

Georgia sports betting efforts also always seemed to get bogged down by politics by the end of the session. This year’s session ends March 28, just a few weeks after the Donald Trump trial is scheduled to start.

So, it figures that political tensions will be running high again. Gambling issues need support from Democrats to pass in Georgia. And while many Democrats favor sports betting legislation entering the session, their votes tend to disappear when Republican leadership tries to move bills at the end of the session.

The best argument for Georgia sports betting passage this year is that legislators have discussed the issue long enough and it is time to put it in front of voters. This is the sixth year for Georgia sports betting legislation.

Bill Pascrell III, a lobbyist who works with Entain, thinks this could be the year for Georgia sports betting.

“There’s a willingness to do this in Georgia. I’m extremely positive and optimistic about Georgia because of conversations I’ve had with various legislators. And I think the governor is inclined to support it if it reaches his desk. But Georgia is a Bible Belt state and there are trepidations and concerns about launching this. I think we have a significant challenge ahead of us, but I’m optimistic we can fight through it.”

If sports betting legislation does show progress this year, it could be a positive sign for future Georgia online casino legislation.

Photo by Butch Dill/AP 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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