A sports betting bill passed the Georgia Senate on Thursday, but an additional change poses a potential roadblock as the bill now moves to the state House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 386 passed with a vote of 35-15, but not before state senators added a constitutional amendment to the bill that would make it much harder to pass in the House. If passed, the bill would create 16 sports betting licenses.
Sports betting in Georgia: Previous efforts to legalize it
Efforts to legalize gambling in the Peach State faltered in 2023. This time around, legislators were trying to set up betting through the Georgia Lottery Corporation without putting the issue to a statewide vote through a constitutional amendment.
"We believe this bill has brought a win for Georgia," said Nick Fernandez of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which supports the plan along with Atlanta’s pro sports teams.
Nationwide, 38 states allow sports betting. Some states allow only in-person bets, although most allow electronic betting from anywhere.
SB 386 would have 20% of the proceeds going to fund pre-K and the HOPE Scholarship. It would create 16 sports betting licenses. The Georgia Lottery would take one. Pro sports interests including the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Atlanta Dream, Atlanta United, Atlanta Motor Speedway, the PGA, and Augusta National would take another eight licenses.
The lottery would be in charge of distributing seven other licenses without ties to pro sports teams. Those licenses would require a $100,000 application fee and an annual license fee of $1 million.
The lure of the bill is that it would only require a majority vote of both chambers and then the signature of Gov. Brian Kemp. A constitutional amendment would need two-thirds of both the House and Senate before it could go to voters for approval in a statewide referendum.
Republican Sen. Clint Dixon of Buford argued that the measure is acceptable because tax proceeds would be spent on prekindergarten classes and HOPE Scholarships for students who achieve at least a "B" average in high school, the uses mandated when voters amended the constitution to allow a lottery in 1992.
"There is no constitutional amendment required because all the funds are going to the lottery to fund pre-K and HOPE," Dixon said.
But opponents warn the measure could be declared unconstitutional, arguing voters would have never believed in 1992 that they were authorizing sports betting, then allowed only in-person at Nevada casinos.
"I don’t believe this end-around is going to work," said Mike Griffin, who lobbies for Georgia’s Southern Baptist churches.
Where does sports betting stand in Georgia?
A different Senate committee earlier this session passed a bill that would require a constitutional amendment, but there’s been no further movement on that measure. Those measures are backed by those who would like to see casinos and betting on horse racing in Georgia, as well as those would would like to spend sports betting taxes on other purposes.
An effort to pass a constitutional amendment flopped last year when it won 30 votes, a majority of senators but short of the 38 needed. Senators in 2023 also rejected a bill that would have authorized sports betting and betting on horse races without a constitutional amendment.
While supporters said they believed sports betting would bring economic benefits, opponents dismissed those claims, saying it’s a gateway to addiction and that bettors as a whole will always lose money.
"Gambling is basically legalized fraud," Griffin said. "Gambling is gambling. You can’t win. The industry can’t lose."