Georgia sports fans will have to wait at least another year for legal sports betting. State lawmakers in Atlanta adjourned their 2023 legislative session early Thursday morning without taking up legislation that could have brought online sports betting to the state in early 2024.
That legislation was House Bill 237. Originally a two-page bill to name the official soap box derby of Georgia, the proposal was turned into a sports betting bill by the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee on March 16. The maneuver had kept hopes for legalization alive after four other sports betting proposals died in early March. Those hopes died Wednesday in the Senate, where a floor vote on the amended bill wasn’t called before the 2023 session ended at midnight.
Had HB 237 passed the Senate, the legislation would have been returned to the House for agreement and final passage. The next stop would have been Gov. Brian Kemp, who has reportedly opposed sports betting efforts in the past but had not taken a public position on HB 237.
Up to 16 online sports betting apps would have potentially launched in Georgia in time for the 2024 Super Bowl under the amended bill, including skins for each of Atlanta’s five pro sports franchises, the PGA Tour, Augusta National, and Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Seven additional apps would have been competitively bid by the Georgia Lottery, which would have been authorized to offer an app of its own.
Soap Box Derbies and Georgia Sports Betting
It’s unclear what derailed a Senate floor vote on HB 237, which had passed out of committee two weeks ago at the urging of Georgia Lt. Governor Burt Jones.
One issue may have been disagreement with using a soap box derby bill to push the issue forward.
HB 237 was supposedly used to move legal sports betting because it was a low-stakes, sports-themed bill that would allow sports betting legislation to advance after the state’s “crossover” deadline of March 6. The crossover rule requires legislation to make a first pass from one chamber to the other by a specific date in order to have a chance at final passage. All four Georgia sports betting bills that died in early March failed to make the crossover deadline.
However, the plan to use HB 237 to move sports betting legislation was opposed by the bill’s sponsor, first-term legislator Rep. Leesa Hagan, R-Lyons. Hagan appeared upset with the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee’s decision to amend her bill with sports betting language when she appeared before the committee to present the bill on March 16.
Hagan said she had not seen the sports betting amendment before the committee vote. Any mention of soap box derbies was stripped from the proposal at Hagan’s request before the committee voted 8-1 to amend the bill.
“I don’t want my soap box derby to be associated with sports betting,” Hagan told the committee. “If this substitute is not going to pass, I’m fine keeping my bill where it is. But if this committee decides that it’d rather have sports betting, I would respectfully request that you remove my language from it.”
Ranking Lawmaker Railed Against Proposal
Also frustrated with the committee amendment to HB 237 was Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee Vice Chair Sen. Mike Dugan. The Carrollton Republican said he had another meeting and hurriedly left the committee room on March 16 before eight of his fellow committee members amended and then passed the bill.
Dugan didn’t exit that meeting, however, before publicly denouncing the pending vote. He called the amendment “unfathomable.”
“Whoever came up with this idea just set sports betting back five years. When you hijack a soap box derby and put sports betting on the back of it? Every person that was on the fence in the state of Georgia has just now picked a side of the fence,” Dugan said. “I can’t support this … You all can vote this out of committee. It will not pass on the floor, and I think everybody in here knows it won’t pass on the floor. And the damage you have just done to sports betting just done to the sports betting industry by trying this is unfathomable.”
The sponsor of the amendment, Sen. Derek Mallow, D-Savannah, listened to Dugan but didn’t respond to his comments. Mallow did explain the sports betting substitute to HB 237, including licensing of the apps and a proposed tax of 22 percent on online wagers.
Other Sports Betting Proposals Failed in Georgia This Session
HB 237 wasn’t the only sports betting proposal to die during the 2023 40-day regular session of the Georgia General Assembly.
Four other proposals died, too, including two bills to legalize online sports betting by statute and two proposed constitutional amendments. The proposed amendments would have allowed voters to decide in 2024 whether to allow legal sports betting as early as 2025.
The two proposals to legalize sports betting without a constitutional amendment (in addition to HB 237) were HB 380 and SB 57. Like HB 237, HB 380 would have legalized up to 16 online apps, including five tethered to pro sports teams and seven untethered. That bill died in the House after clearing the House Higher Education Committee on Feb. 27.
SB 57 – which would have legalized retail and online sports betting, as well as fixed-odds horse race betting – died in the Senate by a 19-37 vote on March 2.
The proposed constitutional amendments included SR 140 and HR 210. The Senate proposal died in the upper chamber on March 6 when it failed to get the two-thirds approval needed to cross over to the House. HR 210 never made it out of a House committee.