All bets are off: Georgia lawmakers didn’t legalize gambling this year

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Photo by GregMontani on Pixabay

With state tax collections running below expectations even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, supporters of legalized gambling in Georgia were optimistic they could finally prevail during the 2020 legislative session after years of failure.

But even the glaring need for additional sources of tax revenue wasn’t enough to get casino gambling or pari-mutuel betting on horse racing over the finish line this year. A new player in the gambling debate, sports betting, also fizzled during the session’s final days.

Proponents blamed state Senate Republican leaders for blocking both a constitutional amendment asking Georgia voters to decide whether to legalize casinos, horse racing and sports betting and separate legislation embracing sports betting. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate’s presiding officer, and leaders in the Senate Republican Caucus made it clear on the session’s opening day in January that legalized gambling would not be a priority for them.

“We had support in the [Georgia] House,” said Billy Linville, spokesman for a coalition of Atlanta’s pro sports teams that banded together to push the sports betting bill. “We’ve got more work to do with Senate leadership.”

But it wasn’t just external opposition that sank the legalized gambling legislation. Advocates for the standalone sports betting measure and those favoring the constitutional amendment putting casinos, horse racing and sports betting on the statewide ballot got in each other’s way, said Georgia Rep. Alan Powell, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee and a key supporter of the constitutional amendment.

“You had such a mixed bag of folks involved in this … the Atlanta sports teams, the casino interests,” said Powell, R-Hartwell. “They were working at diametrically different purposes.”

Both the constitutional amendment and the sports betting bill appeared to be dead back in mid-March when they failed to survive Crossover Day, the annual deadline for legislation to pass one chamber or the other to remain alive for that year’s session.

But supporters took advantage of loopholes in legislative procedure to bring them back when the coronavirus-interrupted session resumed last month by attaching them to other bills that were still eligible for passage.

Powell’s committee approved the constitutional amendment following a presentation by Rep. Ron Stephens, perennially the driving force behind efforts to get casino gambling on the ballot in Georgia.

“I don’t understand how we can sit up in Atlanta and tell folks they’re not allowed to vote for themselves,” Stephens, R-Savannah, said last week. “It’s 50,000 permanent jobs, $1 billion in new revenue, no tax incentives and local control. That’s four things that are hard to vote against.”

But state Sen. Burt Jones said his bill to legalize online sports betting in Georgia stood a better chance of passing than the constitutional amendment.

For one thing, sports betting was new to the General Assembly this year. It wasn’t until 2018 that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law prohibiting states from legalizing gambling on sports.

Also, since Jones’ bill would not change the state Constitution, it only would have required a simple majority in each legislative chamber to pass. Constitutional amendments need two-thirds majorities to clear the House and Senate.

Jones, R-Jackson, argued online sports betting doesn’t require a constitutional change because it simply would represent an expansion of the existing Georgia Lottery.

“The Georgia Lottery already has an app where you can go online and play the lottery from the comfort of your cellphone,” he said.

The Senate Special Judiciary Committee, made up entirely of minority Democrats, resurrected Jones’ bill and approved it. He said the full Senate likely would have passed it if Republican leaders had let it reach the Senate floor for a vote.

But even if the sports betting bill had made it through the Senate, it would have died in the House.

Stephens said lawmakers there weren’t going to vote for a sports betting bill that Gov. Brian Kemp would have been expected to veto.

“You don’t send him a bill knowing he’s going to veto it,” Stephens said.

The only way to bypass the governor would have been to pass the constitutional amendment, since those go directly onto the ballot.

But Powell said any momentum the constitutional change had in the House went away during the last two days of the session when Senate Republican leaders signaled they would not take up the measure even if the House could muster the two-thirds vote necessary to clear the lower chamber.

“That’s what collapsed it,” Powell said.

Linville said members of the coalition he represents plan to crisscross the state this summer and fall to educate the public on the advantages of sports betting and the estimated $60 million a year in tax revenue it would bring to the state.

With a large number of incumbent lawmakers leaving office this year, supporters of legalized gambling also can hope a more sympathetic crop of newly elected legislators will join the General Assembly next year.

However, a more likely source of momentum lies in Georgia’s ongoing budget woes. The fiscal 2021 state budget lawmakers adopted late last month reduces state spending by 10% across the board, but the cuts could go deeper next year if the recession brought on by the spread of COVID-19 drags on.

“Right now, we’re not having to lay off teachers or let prisoners go,” Stephens said. “Next year, if we come back here and have real budget problems again and the federal [stimulus] money is not coming back, we’re going to be in deep doo-doo.”

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