ATLANTA – After years of failed efforts to get legalized gambling through the General Assembly, political observers could hardly be faulted for not betting on 2024 to be different.
But if Las Vegas were setting odds on the three options that have generated the most discussion under the Gold Dome, sports betting would be the clear favorite over casinos and horse racing.
“Sports betting is something that should be an easy lift,” said Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who introduced a sports betting bill back in 2020 when he was a member of the state Senate. “It’s probably the most popular of the three arenas of gambling we’ve talked about.”
Sports betting appeared to get the jump on casinos and horse racing during this year’s legislative session when former Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote in a legal opinion that sports betting could become law in Georgia without changing the state’s constitution.
Melton deemed sports betting essentially a lottery game, meaning it could be overseen by the Georgia Lottery Corp., which voters already incorporated into the constitution in a 1992 statewide referendum.
Not everyone agreed. Some lawmakers favored going with a constitutional amendment to give Georgia voters a chance to weigh in on whether they want sports betting. An alternative Senate measure was introduced to put sports betting in the constitution.
But in the end, the Senate defeated both measures, forcing supporters to wait until 2024.
Jones, who presides over the Senate, said he expects his legislative chamber to take the lead on sports betting again when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Once again, the Metro Atlanta Chamber will be a key backer of the measure. The chamber works closely with Atlanta’s four professional sports teams, which have banded together to support sports betting during recent legislative sessions.
Marshall Guest, the chamber’s senior vice president, said 38 states have legalized sports betting since a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision authorized states to take that step. The list includes the neighboring states of Tennessee and North Carolina.
“This legislation would drive fan engagement for our state’s professional sports teams,” Guest wrote in an email to Capitol Beat.
Guest and others also pointed to the tax revenue the state could generate from sports betting, which under all of the various legislative proposals that have been considered would go to the Georgia’s hugely popular HOPE Scholarships and Pre-Kindergarten programs.
State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, a longtime proponent of legalized gambling, said the tax benefits of sports betting are a good reason for lawmakers to go with the constitutional amendment approach.
A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the state House of Representatives and Senate before it can go to the voters, a more difficult obstacle than bills that only need a simple majority to pass.
But Stephens said emphasizing where the tax money would go if sports passing comes to Georgia could be enough of a winning argument in an election year to secure those two-thirds majorities.
“If we can get this to the floor, it’s going to put people in a position of voting for or against HOPE and Pre-K,” he said.
Another option lawmakers have considered during recent legislative sessions is combining sports betting, casinos, and horse racing into a single constitutional amendment so voters could decide whether to legalize all three at one time.
Supporters of that approach have argued both casinos and horse racing would create more jobs than sports betting, which would be conducted primarily or exclusively online.
Advocates of horse racing have pitched its potential as an economic boon for rural Georgia because of the hay farms and racehorse training facilities it would require. Casino backers have cited examples of destination resort casinos in other states that are reaping huge profits.
But Stephens said pushing all three forms of legalized gambling in Georgia at once is probably too much of a reach.
“I would rather not to try to eat the elephant all at one time,” he said.
Even if sports betting ends up getting the emphasis during the upcoming legislative session, supporters of casinos and horse racing are willing to wait. Change takes time in Georgia, as was exemplified by the years it took Sunday sales of alcohol to pass in the Peach State.
“It’s going to happen,” said Rick Lackey, an Atlanta-based real estate developer who has backed several proposed casino resorts. “It’s just a matter of when.”