For The Record

Let voters decide on expanded gambling, study committee chair says

By: - October 9, 2019 8:51 am

(L-R) State Sen. Nikema Williams, Sen. Ed Harbison, Sen. Frank Ginn, Georgia Lottery Corporation CEO Gretchen Corbin, Sen. Brandon Beach and Sen. Steven Gooch Tuesday attend a study committee meeting of the Gaming and Para-Mutual Wagering on Horse Racing and Growing Georgia’s Equine Industry in Atlanta. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

A Georgia lawmaker pushing for new forms of legal gambling in Georgia to pay for HOPE scholarships said Tuesday that he favors letting voters decide the issue at the ballot box. 

That is a bit of a switch for state Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican who has entertained the idea of using the existing state lottery as a way to avoid the high hurdle of a constitutional amendment.

Beach chaired a Senate study committee Tuesday that is examining potential changes to Georgia’s gambling laws. An Oct. 1 letter from the state’s Office of Legislative Counsel advises lawmakers that if they are to expand Georgia’s legal gaming to casinos, horse racing or sports betting, it should be through a constitutional amendment, as “the only surefire way to avoid years of protracted litigation.” At the same time, the letter left open the possibility the Georgia Lottery Corp. could be given the authority to allow sports betting operations.

Beach said if his study committee proposes legislation to expand gambling options in Georgia, he’d prefer to include the trifecta of sports betting, casinos and horse racing and to let voters make the call.

“I would like to let the voters decide,” Beach said after Tuesday’s meeting. “Then we can come back and do enabling legislation.”

Constitutional amendments require two-thirds approval from both the House and Senate in the Georgia General Assembly, which means even if it enjoys broad support from the Republican majority at the Capitol, Democrats would need to embrace it as well.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, an Atlanta Democrat who sits on the study committee and chairs the state’s Democratic Party, said after Tuesday’s meeting that she is open to supporting sports betting but wants to hear more about how the state will use the money. She expressed worry about people who typically are harmed by gambling.

“My primary concern is how do we center those most marginalized in this conversation,” Williams said. 

Sports betting is now operating in 13 states so far with another eight states recently making it legal, said John Osenenko, a vice president at the Las Vegas’ Scientific games. Those states use existing entities like lottery corporations, casinos and race tracks to manage retail betting kiosks at stadiums and other venues.

Lotteries, which run 70% of sports betting operations worldwide, are a probable option Georgia since its lottery is the only gambling operation in the state, Osenenko said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Beach said expanding the state lottery’s oversight to include sports betting could help bolster funding for the HOPE scholarship. The lottery delivers hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the scholarship, but officials overseeing those funds said at the committee’s first meeting in August that the scholarship faces a financial squeeze, with rising costs from more students who qualify for financial aid and more of them attending expensive schools.

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Beau Evans
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.