Supporters of legal sports gambling in Georgia renewed their push Tuesday, but it’s unclear whether they’re any closer to assembling a winning coalition after they went bust in 2023.
The Senate Regulated Industries voted 8-4 to advance Senate Bill 172, which would legalize, regulate and tax sports betting in Georgia, sending it to the full Senate for more debate. But the measure requires a state constitutional amendment to take effect. That needs two-thirds of both the House and Senate before it could go to voters for approval in a statewide referendum.
The measure’s sponsor, Athens Republican Bill Cowsert, argued again Tuesday that an amendment is needed because when Georgia voters approved a lottery in 1992, sports bets could only be placed in person in a Nevada casino. Vermont on Thursday will become the 38th state nationwide to allow sports betting, Some states allow only in-person bets, although most allow electronic betting from anywhere.
“There’s no way that was contemplated when the voters allowed lotteries in my opinion,” Cowsert said.
But supporters of an approach favored by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Georgia’s pro sports teams disagree. They argue sports betting could be overseen by Georgia’s lottery without amending the constitution. Cowsert’s early action Tuesday may have been designed to influence debate on the issue and get ahead of other gambits.
Cowsert’s effort to pass a constitutional amendment flopped last year when it won 30 votes, a majority of senators but short of the 38 needed. Senators in 2023 also rejected a bill that would have authorized sports betting and betting on horse races without a constitutional amendment.
Cowsert says he will offer a new constitutional amendment this year to authorize only sports betting, admitting that finding agreement could be like finding “a magic potion.” Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Carden Summers of Cordele plans to introduce an amendment allowing sports betting and casinos, and Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta plans an amendment allowing sports betting, casinos and betting on horse races.
“I don’t see anything to fear from a constitutional amendment,” Cowsert said. “I think if you make a policy change like this, you ought to have the buy-in of both parties and the citizens on board to do that, so I embrace that.”
But other lawmakers are doubtful an amendment can win the required two-thirds majority. Republican Sen. Matt Brass of Newnan, who as Rules Committee chair influences what bills go before the whole Senate, could be heard describing the constitutional amendment route as a “quagmire” Tuesday just before the committee voted.
Cowsert also favors a constitutional amendment because it allows sponsors to bargain over how they will allot proceeds. A bill placing sports gambling under the lottery would devote all the money to prekindergarten classes and HOPE Scholarships for students who achieve at least a “B” average in high school.
Many Democrats have pushed sports betting as a funding mechanism for needs-based college scholarships. Others have different destinations in mind. Democratic Sen. David Lucas of Macon repeatedly pressed Cowsert Tuesday to guarantee a stream of income to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon.
Because some Republicans oppose sports betting on moral grounds, any bill is likely to need Democratic support.
But some opponents Tuesday objected to voting on the authorizing bill without knowing where the amendment would channel the money. And Republican Sen. John Albers of Roswell backed the bill but said he didn’t like the bargaining over where proceeds would flow, saying he preferred additional money for child care and HOPE Scholarships.
“The other part that I do have a concern with is constantly trying to pick different folks to buy their support and their vote for any particular change,” Albers said.
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