Legal, online sports betting in Georgia seems closer than ever.
The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would legalize sports wagering, and a Senate committee advanced it to the full Senate floor last week. Polls show most Georgia voters support legal betting, and it has the full support of the state’s largest professional sports teams.
But sizeable political and logistical challenges remain before Georgians can place a bet. Hopes are higher than ever for what would be the largest sports betting market in the South, but expectations should remain constrained until the long legislative journey is completed.
Georgia Sports Betting Political Challenges
Last week the Senate Special Judiciary Committee amended what seems to be the likeliest of the sports wagering bills to pass into law. HB 903, which is attached to an unrelated traffic citation bill, passed the House 161-3. Having already passed the House and now a Senate committee, it would appear legal sports betting is now one Senate floor vote away.
In reality, slapping the unrelated sports betting measure to the noncontroversial traffic bill has done little to legalize wagering.
The committee’s sports betting substitution would still need House approval since both chambers must approve identical versions of any bill. At any point in the legislative process, sports betting opponents could force a vote that slices the wagering amendment from the bill’s core.
Notably, only Democrats serve on the Special Judiciary Committee. Both the Senate and House are controlled by Republicans, which have typically resisted gaming expansion measures. Any passed bill would require GOP support, and since Republicans control both chambers, leadership in either the House or Senate could decline to bring the bill up for a vote.
Gaming opponents already helped kill a sports gambling bill earlier this year when the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee declined to even vote on Republican Sen. Burt Jones’ proposal. Jones revived the soul of his sports betting bill by incorporating it into the traffic measure, but it faces far tougher headwinds in both chambers going forward.
Proponents’ biggest hopes are nevertheless invigorated by the new economic realities facing Georgia that didn’t exist when Jones’ bill faltered in February. Backers argue the projected $50 to $60 million in annual sports betting revenues could help ameliorate the state’s projected multibillion-dollar budget shortfall in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, as with most conservative states considering sports wagering, the potential economic benefits will have to overcome entrenched gambling opposition in the General Assembly. If it passes the legislature, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp remains a staunch gambling opponent and a potential veto threat.
Logistical Challenges for Gaming
Should sports betting pass the gauntlet of a full Senate vote, a follow-up House vote, a possible reconciliation and the governor’s veto pen, the bill, as written, still leaves challenges for legal Georgia sports betting.
To work around the even more difficult path to full-scale private sports betting legalization, which would require two-thirds votes in both chambers and a voter referendum, the legislation deems sports betting as merely another game option for the state lottery. While that workaround would undoubtedly face legal challenges from anti-gambling advocates, it still leaves major questions should it pass into law.
The biggest concern for the industry is lottery control. With direct power over the industry, the Georgia Lottery, and the government by extension, could create a de facto monopoly, as has been the case in Oregon and Washington D.C. Both jurisdictions have struggled with poor betting lines, implementation delays and inconsistent service, which become all the more determinantal when they’re the only legal offering.
The Georgia bill could build a competitive marketplace framework under the government purview, but that too could be jeopardized by one company. In New Hampshire, lawmakers hoped to have multiple sites, but when New England-based DraftKings drastically outbid all its competitors, state officials had no choice but to grant the company exclusive online market access.
The legislation also includes an unusual clause that allows pro sports teams as well as universities to ask out of legal sports betting. This means, theoretically, popular local college programs such as the University of Georgia football team could remove themselves from legal sportsbooks, a huge potential revenue loss in the college-football crazy South.
Those are just the tip of the legislative and regulatory concerns facing legal Georgia sports betting which, again, is still far from a reality. Neighboring Tennessee, which like Georgia, is among the few remaining states without any land-based gaming facilities, passed a sports betting bill last year, but still has not taken its first bet.
Unprecedented regulatory restraints have handicapped the Tennesee market before it has begun, and could be a warning for a state such as Georgia trying to advance a major gaming expansion without the gaming industry experience that has allowed others to do so without so many hurdles.
Before that happens, Georgia lawmakers must agree to the largest gaming expansion in their state since the 1992 lottery creation. Tucking sports wagering under the lottery’s purview may assuage skeptics, but the political forces that have curtailed Georgia gambling for generations still carry weight in the legislature.
At the same time, the budget crisis that helped revive sports betting in June after lawmakers ignored it in February will not be solved by new wagering dollars. It could become easy to overlook sports betting in the scramble with its contributions so small compared to larger issues.
Last Friday’s committee vote is the closest legal sports betting has ever come to Georgia. That bill, or the other legalization avenues, could pass into law before the General Assembly concludes its work in the coming day.
Still, any progress must be tampered by the myriad obstacles ahead.