State lawmakers put gambling back on the table, or at least online

Online sports betting and casino gambling might still be on the table as state lawmakers wind down Georgia’s 2020 legislative session.

The Senate Special Judiciary Committee Friday approved a plan to allow sports fans to wager online on sports, which Atlanta’s professional franchises have publicly called for since last fall. Jackson Republican Sen. Burt Jones’ betting bill was tacked on to an unrelated bill regarding traffic citations in a procedural maneuver.

State lawmakers studied gambling proposals last fall, including horse racing and casinos. And while online sports wagers seemed the surest bet at times, the lieutenant governor seemed skeptical at the outset of the 2020 session that expanding legalized gambling beyond the state lottery could happen this year.

Georgians already bet big money on college and professional sports, about $1.5 billion per year, Jones said. He proposes to park online betting administration under the control of the Georgia Lottery and some of the take to Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs, he said.

“On the lottery side, you have an unsustainable situation right there, and the only way to keep that program viable for years to come is to do one or two things, either you got to cut cost, cut measures on the Georgia lottery side, or you’ve got to find ways to generate more revenue dollars,” he said.

The scholarship fund sits on about $550 million in unrestricted reserves.

Sports betting companies would pay a 20% tax on their income, which could bring between $50 and $60 million to the Georgia Lottery, Jones said.

Companies would need to pay a non-refundable $50,000 license fee to be allowed to operate in the state. 

The heads of Atlanta’s major sports franchises, the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta United have all supported legalizing sports betting in public forums.

While some say mobile gambling could come to Georgia with a stroke of Gov. Brian Kemp’s pen on a bill, it would take two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of Georgia voters to allow casinos to the state.

Odds of that happening may be long, but there’s still a chance, said Rep. Alan Powell, the Hartwell Republican who chairs the House Regulated Industries Committee. Powell co-chaired a study committee last fall that seemed keen on expanding Georgia’s legalized gambling options to include horse racing and casinos.

Powell said in a committee meeting Friday that language included in a resolution for a constitutional amendment that addresses Georgians’ right to petition a superior court can pave the way for casino gambling.

“I don’t even think it was a secret that this bill was intended to be used as a vehicle to move the constitutional amendment to give the people of Georgia a chance to vote on gaming, something that now, possibly, observers might say this (is) an awful good way to raise revenue during these down times,” he said.

The committee didn’t vote on the resolution, but Powell suggested that could soon change.

“This bill will be back up, I suspect, if the powers that be and the author of the bill that is pushing this, if he wants to come up, we may be hearing it as soon as tomorrow or Monday,” he said. “We don’t even know if we’re going to be here tomorrow or Sunday, but we will hear it at some point because there’s a lot of folks who believe that the public has a right to vote.”

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