Senate panel creates new path for legalized online sports gambling

    A Senate bill proposes to allow people older than 21 and within Georgia’s boundaries to place bets on professional and collegiate games, so long as the college team wagered are not from the state. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    A Senate panel pushed through a revised proposal to legalize online sports betting in Georgia Thursday while pairing it with a proposed constitutional amendment that some have argued is an unnecessary companion.

    The bill would allow those older than 21 and who are present within the state’s boundaries to place bets on professional and collegiate games, so long as the college team wagered on does not hail from Georgia.

    “Regardless of where the event takes place and whether it’s in the regular season or during the playoffs, tournament, Final Four, you can’t bet on UGA and you can’t bet on your Mercer Bears down there in Macon and you can’t bet on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican.

    The bill and constitutional amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Mullis, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, were passed out of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee after a vote on a similar bill was delayed in the House. The delay raised doubt that the proposal had the votes needed to pass that chamber.

    A constitutional amendment would need even more votes – two-thirds support of the Senate and House – to make it onto ballots for voters to decide. But Cowsert, who is also an attorney, argued that he thinks it is a stretch to try to provide legal cover to sports betting in Georgia by calling it a lottery game.

    Cowsert said he thinks the new Senate version may win over reluctant lawmakers. The bill allows betting proceeds to go toward purposes beyond the HOPE scholarship and pre-K education.

    Under the proposal that passed Thursday, the state could also put the revenue towards needs-based scholarships, grants or loans; rural health care services and health care insurance coverage; or the deployment of broadband services to unserved areas.

    “I think this will probably generate much broader support for this initiative if we do it this way,” Cowsert said.

    Proponents have argued that more than 2 million people are already placing bets on sports in Georgia, causing the state to miss out on revenue.

    “Right now, it’s going to the bookie, but when we pass this, it will be going to the lottery and broadband and rural health care,” Mullis said.

    The measure, though, it is not expected to create a major money-maker for the state. Sports betting is only expected to generate about $25 million to $50 million as a best-case scenario, Cowsert said. Mullis said he expects the state’s take to run higher.

    The proposal has drawn the usual opposition from faith-based groups, who warn of the social ills tied to gambling and the potential cost to taxpayers to address those problems.

    “I get tired of saying the same thing over. Y’all probably get tired of hearing the same thing over,” said Virginia Galloway, regional field director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

    Cowsert acknowledged those potential harms and said the authors included what are meant as “guardrails” to protect against obsessive gambling. For example, a betting service could not offer credit to someone who cannot pay for a wager upfront.

    Someone could not deposit more than $2,500 a month in their gaming account, which is a provision lifted from Tennessee’s law. That is meant to at least limit the amount of money a person can lose.

    A 2019 U.S. 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.

    The $2,500 monthly betting cutoff is meant to at least limit the amount of money a person can lose.

    “If you want to make a living gambling, you might want to go to Vegas,” Cowsert said.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.