State lawmakers head to 2020 with potential gambling plans in pocket

The state Senate study committee considering expanding legalized gambling in Georgia plans to present a recommendation to the Legislature when it convenes next month. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

Lawmakers in both the Georgia House and Senate appear poised to push for an expansion of some form of legalized gambling next year, most likely asking voters to decide at the ballot box.

Study committees from both chambers weighed the revenue jackpot casinos might bring against the harsh political resistance wide-open gambling is likely to face. Horse racing and online sports betting are also in play, although with a smaller take for the state to fund things like education and health care.

A state Senate committee Tuesday folded until 2020 without offering recommendations for legalizing casinos, sports betting and horse racing. For months members of both chambers debated how they might pose a constitutional amendment question to voters.

Senators on the study panel have little appetite for legalizing casinos and questions remain over how new gambling revenues should be allotted, said committee chair Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican. House lawmakers exploring new legalized gambling have called for splitting new revenues between the HOPE Scholarship and health care spending, such as Gov. Brian Kemp’s new Medicaid waiver program.

Some state lawmakers want to let voters decide whether to legalize casinos, sports betting and horse racing with a single constitutional amendment question. Others want to assign each type of gaming its own amendment question. Over the fall, sports betting emerged as the best pick for political success, while casinos are considered a relative longshot. Lumping casinos into legislation with horse racing and sports wagers could kill the chances for the latter two, particularly sports betting.

Beach’s committee is still debating how to phrase a proposed amendment and what to include in it. He tabled a vote on gambling recommendations expected Wednesday at the committee’s final meeting. 

“We couldn’t get a consensus,” Beach said after the meeting Wednesday at the Capitol. “So we’re going to continue to work on that.”

The Senate committee’s final recommendations to their fellow lawmakers should be ready before the General Assembly convenes in Atlanta Jan. 13, Beach said.

The House committee focused on gambling favors packaging the question of legalizing casinos, horse racing and sports betting in a single ballot question, said committee co-chair Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican. A report from that committee could be ready by year’s end, he said.

An all-or-nothing amendment would settle debate for good over whether the state should host other gambling forms besides the Georgia Lottery, Stephens said. A longtime supporter of legalizing casinos in Georgia, Stephens said revenues from sports betting would fall far short of the haul casinos could deliver for the state.

“I think there’s a whole lot of people who want sports betting to be a standalone,” Stephens. “But it doesn’t create any jobs and it doesn’t get us where we need to go in terms of dollars.”

Support for legalized sports betting gained momentum in Georgia after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year opened up sports betting in every state. Atlanta’s professional sports franchises are throwing their support behind sports betting. Some lawmakers see it as a more politically feasible way than casinos to shore up HOPE Scholarship funding as more students qualify in Georgia. Past legislation to legalize casinos in Georgia didn’t go far.

Like their Senate counterparts, the House committee is weighing whether to recommend using new revenues from legalized gambling to offset the state’s health care spending, Stephens said. That could include spending about $140-million Kemp’s new Medicaid waiver plan or on other kinds of assistance for uninsured Georgians, Stephens said.

“The working poor is part of our focus and the uninsured is part of our focus,” Stephens said Wednesday. “Even with the expansion of Medicaid, there’s going to be a hole that we have to (fill) up.”

Other lawmakers want early childhood education programs to have a larger share of funding from new gambling revenues than they currently get from the lottery. The Senate committee’s recommendations should “uplift the expansion of our state pre-k program,” said committee member Sen. Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia and a committee member.

“I hope that as we continue these conversations and looking at the final recommendations and what we actually bring forth in the legislature, that you make sure that you include the minority party so that our voices are heard,” Williams said at Wednesday’s meeting.

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. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.