State Senate set to consider legalizing online college and pro sports betting

University officials declined to offer an opinion on a bill to legalize sports gambling at both the professional and collegiate level in Georgia, but school officials in other states came out in opposition due to concerns gamblers might tempt their players. Courtesy University of Georgia, photo by Dorothy Kozlowski.

Georgians break the law all the time when they bet on sports online, taking a gamble on football, baseball and just about any contest played on a field or in an arena.

Some Georgia lawmakers say it’s time for the state’s education programs to get a piece of that action by making it legal. That’s a sentiment endorsed by Atlanta’s major league franchises, which are publicly embracing gambling as never before.

In the next few days, success or failure could come down to an obscure legal question and perhaps the final decision of just a handful of undecided senators in a chamber that’s not neatly divided on gambling.

Sports betting is already prevalent in Georgia, said state Sen. Burt Jones, the Jackson Republican who’s sponsoring Senate Bill 403. It would legalize online betting on sports except horse racing. His proposal includes pro sports, college sports and the Olympics. The gambling proceeds would boost the state’s Pre-K and HOPE college tuition programs.

Adding state regulation and revenue collection to online sports betting, he said, would be like picking up money in the street.

“It’s very easy to regulate, very easy to put the parameters in place, in the area and you could easily collect revenue dollars from it,” Jones said.

States have moved quickly to legalize sports betting after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanded it beyond Nevada and New Jersey. It’s now legal in 20 states, though not all programs are operational yet. Typically states make sure mobile phone wagerers are in the state with technology that checks the location of a phone.

Georgia’s big league sports leaders say they can police athletes well enough to prevent them from taking money from big gamblers to throw a game. And they’re hoping gambling will help keep fans interested.

Donna Lowry, with Georgia Public Broadcasting, and Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Eric Jackson moderate an Atlanta Press Club panel discussion in February with Atlanta Hawks president Steve Koonin, Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay and Derek Schiller, president of the Atlanta Braves. The sports executives detailed why they support legalized sports gambling in Georgia. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

“We’re doing this not for an economic gain, in the literal sense, but to keep future fans engaged in our sport,” Atlanta Hawks president and CEO Steve Koonin said at a public talk on sports betting in February, flanked by the leaders of the Falcons and the Braves.

Nobody is predicting sports betting can come near matching the $1.3 billion that the Georgia Lottery is expected to generate for education in the fiscal year that begins in July. The state’s lottery is the only legal form of gamling in Georgia. Lottery revenues pay for Pre-K and HOPE programs.

Sports betting supporters estimate Georgia will collect $20 million to $40 million annually from the industry, based on the experience of other states that recently legalized online betting.

Gambling revenue is exceeding expectations in some states, said Billy Linville of the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, a major-league industry group. But, he said, because it’s a new industry it’s hard to say how large Georgia’s betting handle will be.

The Senate Democratic Caucus isn’t taking a position on the legislation and it’s not a partisan issue, said Minority Leader Steve Henson of Tucker. Indeed, two Democrats are among the five signers of Jones’ bill.

Henson said he hasn’t decided on his own vote, but he does think the cost of college in Georgia should lean less on lottery ticket buyers and more on regular taxes.

“We can’t let the lottery or gambling distract us from the need to fund higher education out of the general fund,” Henson said.

Jones’ bill carries the signature of state Sen. Brandon Beach, the Alpharetta Republican who’s been among the leading supporters of setting up public votes on sports betting, casinos and horse racing. Especially the horse tracks, as Beach predicts it would drive a whole new equine industry spawning jobs in rural Georgia.

“Hopefully all three get out [of the Legislature] and we get to vote on all,” Beach said.

Getting all three types of gambling to the finish line seems like a longshot. If sports betting is the most achievable one, it still has its critics.

State Sen. Bruce Thompson, a Republican from White, is worried gambling will drain money that lower- and middle-income families need for necessities.

“A wealthy person can bet, and the impact on them if they lose $1,000 is $1,000,” Thompson said. “A person that’s making $40,000 a year, $1,000 is significant and will disrupt the core family operation.”

He said HOPE is a great thing, but it doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has an efficiency problem.

“How many students enter college and their first year they never return back, and they utilize HOPE?” Thompson said.

Virginia Galloway, regional field director of Faith and Freedom Coalition, has spent years around the state Capitol. She said her sense is that some people are really for gambling, some are really against it and many are in the middle.  

Count her as really against any kind of gambling. It will just create a whole new class of folks who are victims of addictive disease, she said.

“Here we’re basically putting a casino in every single phone in Georgia,” Galloway said.

And in some other states, adoption hasn’t been smooth. Tennessee legalized last year but still hasn’t set up regulations to actually get people into the legal sports wagering business. Ohio’s 13 Division I NCAA institutions are objecting to a sports betting bill because they think throwing a game for money may be too big a temptation for unpaid college athletes.

The University of Georgia referred inquiries to their umbrella state agency, the University System of Georgia, where a spokesman said they don’t comment on pending legislation.

That’s because legal minds differ over whether sports betting requires simple majority votes in the House and Senate or a constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds majority votes in the state House and Senate plus a statewide referendum.

An opinion from a legislative attorney lists arguments on both sides and suggested that lawmakers avoid the risk of any future lawsuit by subjecting sports betting to a constitutional amendment.

Jones is prepared for either path and is gathering more legal opinions. He’s filed Senate Resolution 821 to set up a public vote if need be.

But the time is running short to figure it all out and line up votes. The Legislature is already halfway through its annual 40-day working session.

A state Senate committee is scheduled to hear Jones’ bill to legalize sports betting Tuesday.