Senate panel considers expanding gambling to sports, horses, casinos

Georgia lawmakers are making plans to expand legal gambling beyond lotto tickets to casinos, horse racing and online sports betting. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

Georgia lawmakers angling for new revenue from legalized gambling in the state launched a fresh look Tuesday to consider  whether sports betting, horse racing and casino gambling can drum up new revenue for the state’s HOPE Scholarship.

Supporters of legalized gambling tout a regulated gaming industry’s potential to shore up the state’s popular lottery-supported scholarship. State officials said at Tuesday’s meeting the HOPE program is under financial strain as more qualifying students use their aid to pay increasing tuition bills.

Still, the scholarship fund sits on about $550 million in unrestricted reserves. The Legislature appropriated $1.2 billion in this year’s state budget for Hope programs and pre-kindergarten.

State fees from expanded legalized gambling could play a key role in boosting the finances of the HOPE Scholarship, said Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican who co-chairs the Senate study committee.

“I want to make sure we’re continuing to fund that,” Beach said at Tuesday’s meeting of the study committee exploring expanding legal gambling beyond the state-sanctioned lottery.

The state lottery delivers hundreds of millions of dollars each year for HOPE scholarships and it might also be used as a vehicle to establish sports betting in Georgia if legislation is passed to make that form of gambling legal, Beach said. Lottery executives speaking at Tuesday’s meeting highlighted “geo-locating” technology that could assure online lottery participants are playing within Georgia and not outside state lines.

“(The lottery) could probably do that,” Beach said after Tuesday’s meeting. “But we’d have to look at it.”

Bills to legalize horse racing in the General Assembly are not new and most have stalled in the Legislature, as did the one Beach introduced in the 2019 session. It is still pending ahead of the 2020 Legislature. Legislation to legalize casinos proposed by Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, hasn’t gained as much legislative traction as publicity in recent years. Both forms of gambling will require that lawmakers approve a Constitutional Amendment, a tall legislative hurdle, before voters could have a say.

Calls for legalized gambling in Georgia and sports betting in particular are growing after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year opened up sports betting in every state. Nevada and New Jersey long had the legal gambling market cornered until sports betting and online fantasy sports wagering gained popularity in recent years. Tennessee and Mississippi have already passed legislation following the court ruling and are developing online mobile systems for people to make wagers. Mississippi now allows sports betting in person at casinos.

Beach said Tuesday Georgia would be wise to expand gambling options to keep up with upcoming regional competition. He described a recent trip to North Carolina with his wife in which they detoured to see two casinos and found numerous cars with Georgia tags in the parking lots.

“Georgia people were in North Carolina spending Georgia dollars,” Beach said. “So it’s something we need to look at.”

Tuesday’s study committee meeting is the first of a series that continues next month at SunTrust Park. The committee plans to gauge support for online sports betting from Atlanta Braves, Falcons and Hawks team executives.

Lottery executives Tuesday touted the billions of dollars in revenues the game has raised for the HOPE scholarship since its arrival in the form of tickets and scratch-offs in 1993. The state agency also brought in money for education from thousands of gambling machines it managed since 2013, said Georgia Lottery President and CEO Gretchen Corbin.

But now the state’s HOPE Scholarship and the more competitive Zell Miller Scholarship face rising costs created by an increasing number of students who qualify for financial aid and who attend more expensive schools, said Caylee Noggle, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission.

So, the familiar horse racing and casino propositions are back on the table as a potential revenue source. And sports betting is gaining traction as new entry.

Absent backing for the bills that require opening up the Georgia Constitution, gambling legislation supporters will ask Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr for guidance to determine if regulated gaming activities are possible using the state lottery as a vehicle, Beach said after Tuesday’s meeting.

The proposed gambling measures also could provide money for more than the HOPE program, Beach said. It might be used for public education and rural infrastructure programs that are subject to budget cuts Gov. Brian Kemp ordered earlier this month, he said. 

“Every single piece of the gaming industry is something we’re going to look at,” said Stephens, who is sponsoring bills on sports betting as well as casinos. “We don’t think we need to limit ourselves.”

Opponents of the measures say social and financial costs from gambling outweigh any windfall for scholarships.

“The juice isn’t worth the squeeze,” said Virginia Galloway, the regional field director for the nonprofit Faith and Freedom Coalition. “Gambling is a tax on the poor and ignorant to pay for the education of the upper middle class.”

 

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College.

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