Sports gambling bill gaining traction, could get committee vote next week

    Sen. Jeff Mullis presents his sports betting bill to a Senate committee Thursday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

    Legislation to legalize online sports betting in Georgia could come to a vote in a state Senate committee as soon as next week.

    Expanding legal gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery has long been a topic of debate under the Gold Dome, but the odds of progress improved last week when a group of powerful lawmakers led by Senate Rules Committee Chair Jeff Mullis filed a bill that would give the Georgia Lottery responsibility for regulating and taxing wagers on athletic events. Similar legislation is also filed in the state House.

    Mullis presented his bill to the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries and Utilities Thursday, saying he wants the state to get a piece of the online gambling action that Georgians are already spending money on and put it toward a good cause.

    “The estimate is over 2 million Georgians are doing it now, and do you know who has control of this? The bookies,” the Chickamauga Republican said. “The people that are controlling the spread and all those aspects of wagering. If you will honor me in supporting this issue, it will be regulated by the Georgia Lottery, it will go to good causes like the Georgia HOPE Scholarship.”

    Lawmakers and their legislative counsel once argued that sports betting, like casino gambling, would require a constitutional amendment approved by Georgia voters, but attorney Nicholas Green now says that because sports betting is in many ways a game of chance rather than a game of skill, it could fall under the lottery’s purview.

    “When you are hazarding money on the play of somebody else, that is significantly outside of your control as to how the outcome of that game operates, and that’s that key element of chance that would allow it to be a lottery,” he said.

    The bill would allow betting on almost any professional sport, with the notable exception of horse racing. Horse racing typically uses a form of betting called parimutuel betting, which is explicitly outlawed in the state constitution.

    The measure was not scheduled to receive a vote Thursday, but the reaction from the senators on the committee was warm, for the most part. Marietta Republican Sen. Lindsey Tippins said he is concerned Georgians will take up sports betting and stop spending money on the Georgia Lottery games. The state gets a larger cut of the Georgia Lottery’s proceeds than the proposed 10% in the sports betting bill.

    “I understand full well that these are dollars that are not being taxed now, but if there’s any money being diverted, we’re going to have to do a lot more to make up what we lose,” he said.

    During the public comment portion of the hearing, some pointed to potential social costs of expanded gambling.

    The bill does not provide adequate protection for people with gambling addictions, said Joshua Johnson, a Gwinnett County pastor who has counseled people struggling with such addictions.

    “Most people who have a gambling addiction do not realize it or do not see it as a problem,” he said. “But ask the spouse of that person who’s struggling to make ends meet in their household budget. Ask the children in those homes whose shoes are too small, their clothes are worn out and they can’t play on the sports teams they want to play on simply because mom and dad lost their money on sports gambling.”

    Committee Chair Sen. Bill Cowsert, a Republican from Athens, said he expects the committee to take up the bill again next week.

    Ross Williams
    Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.