Online sports betting could defy odds against new Georgia legal gambling

Georgia sports fans could put money down on the Atlanta Falcons and other professional sports teams if the Legislature passes a bill to legalize online sports betting in the state. Getty Images

The odds are looking better for online sports betting in Georgia after a group of high-ranking state senators filed a bill Tuesday night that would expand legalized gambling beyond the state’s decades-old lottery.

The bill, filed by Republican Senate Rules Committee Chair Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, would bring the practice of wagering on professional sports under the purview of the Georgia Lottery, which could grant licenses to gambling platforms.

It would limit legal betting to people 21 and up within state boundaries, and bets could be made on pro sports and college contests that don’t involve a Georgia school. It also includes provisions banning insider wagers.

Its bipartisan list of co-sponsors includes Republicans Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller of Gainesville and Chief Deputy Whip Sen. John Albers of Roswell as well as Democratic Whip Sen. Harold Jones of Augusta.

It is largely similar to a House bill authored by Republican state Rep. Ron Stephens of Savannah, which passed the Economic and Development and Tourism Committee earlier this month.

A key difference between the two bills is the size of the state’s cut. The Senate bill calls for a state tax of 10%, while Stephens’ bill calls for 14%. The House Rules Committee sent Stephens’ bill back to the previous committee Wednesday, where changes could be hashed out.

About 2.3 million Georgians already engage in sports betting to the tune of about $4.8 billion a year, and a portion of that money could instead go toward the HOPE Scholarship and pre-K if the state expands lottery-run gambling to sports, Stephens said.

State lawmakers have long proposed new legalized gambling in Georgia, but until recently lawmakers believed legalizing sports betting, casino gambling or horse racing would require an amendment to the state constitution. That’s a tall legislative hurdle requiring a two-thirds vote from both chambers and then a statewide vote, but Stephens said his sports betting measure only needs support from a majority of lawmakers.

There are legal arguments both in favor and against Stephens’ position.

“Because there are even odds on whether or not the Georgia Constitution currently prohibits sports betting, the only surefire way to avoid years of protracted litigation over the matter would be a constitutional amendment that explicitly authorizes the legalization of sports betting in one or more forms,” deputy legislative counsel D. Stuart Morelli wrote in 2019.

Stephens and other lawmakers pushed legislation to open the state to casino gambling and horse racing repeatedly in past legislative sessions, but a 2019 Supreme Court ruling opened the door to states to legalize sports betting. Tennessee and about 20 other states are in on the games so far.

Speaking at a House Rules Committee Tuesday, Stephens said his bill would legal pass muster because it allows the Georgia Lottery to oversee sports betting as it does with other games of chance.

“They will allow for no less than six vendors, at arm’s length, to do what, again, they can do today,” Stephens said. “The vendors themselves will contract with the lottery, and of course, they’ll tax those vendors, just as they do today. Some of you may not know, but the lottery commission doesn’t do all the gaming. They contract out at arm’s length. This bill will do that as well.”

“Unless it’s challenged constitutionally, yes, it will stand,” Stephens added.

Atlanta’s major sports franchises, the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta United, have signaled support for legalizing sports betting, as have high ranking Republicans including House Speaker David Ralston.

Others have expressed unease on moral grounds and concerns that online sports gambling could create a slippery slope leading to bigger changes like casino gambling.

“I’ve got some concerns with this proposition, but I have grave concerns with casino gambling, and I want to make sure we’ve got a commitment that this isn’t a platform or doesn’t get amended in the other body as enabling legislation for casino gambling,” said Republican state Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth Tuesday.

Stephens said such a change would be unlikely because it would require a constitutional amendment, creating longer odds against success.