ATLANTA – Legislation aimed at legalizing online sports betting in Georgia is a casualty of the controversial election law overhaul majority Republicans pushed through the General Assembly last week.
A constitutional amendment asking voters whether to bring legal sports betting to Georgia and a separate “enabling” bill outlining how the industry would operate failed to reach the floor of the state House of Representatives on the final night of this year’s legislative session.
Both measures had cleared the Georgia Senate early last month.
Supporters blamed passage of the omnibus election reform bill for poisoning the well for Democrats, whose support was critical to passing sports betting.
The Georgia chapter of the NAACP released a statement on Wednesday urging lawmakers not to vote for any legalized gambling legislation.
“That killed it,” state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, who was carrying the sports betting legislation in the House, said Thursday. “After that, a lot of issues fell by the wayside.”
Stephens and other Republicans worked to win Democrats’ support for sports betting by agreeing to dedicate a portion of the proceeds to need-based scholarships, a key priority for Democrats.
But the goodwill between GOP supporters of sports betting and Democratic lawmakers faded after Gov. Brian Kemp signed an election reform bill Democrats labeled as voter suppression. The Georgia NAACP is among the groups challenging the legislation in a federal lawsuit.
“If they expect to earn our support on corporate issues that will make rich people wealthier, our expectation is that they, too, work with us on uplifting our community through meaningful policy objectives,” the Rev. James Woodall, state president of the Georgia NAACP, wrote in a statement.
Senate passage of sports betting had begun building momentum for the legislation in the House. It marked the first time in a decade of trying that supporters of legalized gambling had gotten a bill through either of the two chambers.
But the tide appeared to be turning by Wednesday morning, when Sen. Jeff Mullis, chief sponsor of the sports betting measures, took to the Senate floor to complain that House Democrats were blocking his legislation.
“They are leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table for need-based [scholarships] funding for people who really need it,” said Mullis, R-Chickamauga.
Rick Lackey, an Atlanta-based real estate developer behind three proposed casino resorts scattered across Georgia, suggested sports betting failed because the legislation didn’t include legalizing casino gambling.
He said casinos would bring in far more tax revenue for need-based scholarships, health care and other uses the state might have for gambling proceeds than sports betting. Also, online sports betting wouldn’t create jobs, while casinos would generate thousands of temporary construction jobs and permanent jobs after mixed-use casino resorts open for business, he said.
“It’s like comparing penny pitching to Blackjack,” Lackey said.
Lackey pointed out that a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting, casinos and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing is still alive in the Georgia House for consideration next year.
But Stephens said he’d rather see the General Assembly pursue sports betting first.
“Sports betting is supposed to be the easy one,” he said. “It would give us momentum as we move into the other stuff.”