Georgia state lawmakers once again have sports betting on their minds. One bill to legalize sports betting in the state has been filed so far this year. More bills could follow.
First up is the Georgia Sports Betting Integrity Act, or SB 57. The bill would legalize up to 18 online sportsbooks – or one skin (or mobile app) each – for each of Atlanta’s five major pro sports franchises, the PGA Tour, amateur golf, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta international motorsports track, and nine sportsbooks through the state lottery.
Retail sports betting would be allowed through licensed sports betting “distributors” at a handful of horse racing tracks, restaurants and bars, and state lottery retailers.
Sen. Billy Hickman of Statesboro introduced the bill. Hickman now has a troupe of nine lawmakers – both Republicans, like himself, and Democrats – signed on as bill co-sponsors.
Hickman told Georgia Public Broadcasting on Feb. 2 that he is “cautiously optimistic” his bill will pass this spring.
Georgia does have something to gain from legalization – between $30 million to $100 million in the first year alone, by some estimates. Revenue would be earmarked for education in SB 57.
That’s something some Georgians say they can get behind. But doubts remain.
Poll: Is Support for Georgia Sports Betting Waning?
Behind the push for legal sports betting in Georgia are Atlanta’s professional sports teams and the Metro Atlanta Chamber – all working together to bring legal sports betting home, according to an Axios Feb. 10 report. The chamber wants legal sports betting because it would bring in new revenue for education and jobs, chamber official Marshall Guest reportedly told Axios. The franchises want it because their fans want it, the site reported.
That said, public support for legal sports betting in Georgia isn’t what it used to be, according to a January poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Only 48 percent of Georgians polled in January were in favor of legalized sports betting, compared to 57 percent of those polled in 2020.
That 48 percent still represents a majority of those polled (with 37 percent in opposition). But support has decidedly waned. And it comes with conditions, notably that new state revenue from legal sports betting be spent on education.
Under SB 57, tax dollars for education would come from a 20 percent tax on adjusted gross revenue from sports betting. That is likely to help public opinion. But other issues remain.
SB 57 and Fixed-Odds Horse Race Betting
One is the issue of fixed-odds horse race betting. SB 57 attempts to legalize both fixed-odds horse race betting and sports betting in the same bill. Past attempts to combine legalization of two types of gambling in one bill in Georgia “has made it difficult to pass any of them,” Metro Atlanta Chamber official Marshall Guest told Axios.
Fixed-odds betting is desirable to many bettors because (unlike pari-mutuel horse race betting) the odds for a bet don’t change after the wager is placed. That usually allows bettors to win more money than with pari-mutuel betting.
Yet fixed-odds horse betting is not without controversy. Much of that comes from the fact that tracks have more risk with fixed-odds betting. They don’t have that risk with pari-mutuel betting.
But from a sportsbook operator’s perspective, fixed-odds betting “is the only way to reinvigorate the US (horse racing) market,” BetMGM’s head bookmaker Jason Scott told Gaming Today’s Marcus DiNitto in a September 2022 interview.
“It’s the only way for it to grow,” Scott said. “We have customers who bet with us six figures in sport, and they want to bet on horses, and they can only have $2,000 and $3,000 bets because the pools are so small. I have a couple of customers that might turn over $2 million a week on their own – that’s $100 million a year if they can bet to limits they want to bet. They bet sport because they can get amounts that interest them.”
The Constitutional Amendment Issue
Another issue in Georgia is the question of the constitutionality of sports betting – specifically, can sports betting be legalized in the state by statute alone, or does it take a constitutional amendment?
State lawmakers took the constitutional route last year but failed to get a question to voters on the 2022 general election ballot. The next chance to vote by referendum will be the Nov. 2024 general election ballot, bumping a sports betting launch into 2025.
Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton says a constitutional amendment isn’t necessary, according to a Jan. 18 AJC report on a memo written by Melton.
“Based on my review of the relevant law, the original public meanings of applicable terms and the historical context of those terms, it is my opinion that sports betting can be legalized as a state-run lottery for educational purposes solely through legislative action,” Melton reportedly wrote in the memo.
SB 57 would legalize sports betting without a referendum, allowing legal sports betting to launch as early as this fall as opposed to 2025.
What’s Next For SB 57?
SB 57 is now in the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Tourism waiting for a hearing. No hearing date is yet scheduled, but could still come this week. If passed in that committee, the bill is a step closer to passing the full Senate.
Georgia lawmakers will be meeting in session until March 30 this year, giving them plenty of time to get SB 57 or some other sports betting proposal through the legislative process. At least in theory.
Policymaking is full of behind-the-scenes drama in state legislatures. That drama can spill out in committee or on the House or Senate floor in the form of an amendment that can derail almost any bill. Only legislation that is a top priority usually finds its way back on track.
Only time will tell where legal sports betting falls on the road to (possible) passage in Georgia this year.