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All bets are off: Georgia lawmakers nix legal sports betting
sports betting
Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, debates SR 140 in the Senate chambers during crossover day at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)

Georgia lawmakers are again spurning plans to legalize sports betting, rejecting an effort that had been pushed by Atlanta's sports teams and business leaders.

The state Senate on Monday rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed voters to decide whether to legalize sports gambling, while the state House never took up a bill that would have authorized sports gambling without such an amendment.

The failure of the bills Monday, the deadline for bills to pass out of their original chamber and "cross over" to a new chamber, means it's unlikely that any sports gambling measure will pass this year.

Some Georgia lawmakers typically attempt to expand gambling every year, but none of the efforts have succeeded since voters approved a state lottery in 1992. Momentum had appeared to be building behind this year's effort, after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp had voiced openness to signing a bill. But efforts to assemble a winning coalition failed in both houses.

Sports betting is already legal in 34 states, although only some allow in-person gambling.

Senators voted 30-26 in favor of Senate Resolution 140, but failed to reach the required two-thirds majority of 38.

"I don't get why it's wrong to let the people vote on this issue. We're not all petty dictators up here," said Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican who sponsored the measure.

Others argued Georgia lawmakers could legalize wagering on sports outright, without requiring a constitutional amendment. Proponents say voters already amended the constitution to allow a form of gambling when they approved the Georgia Lottery decades ago. House Bill 380 would have sent sports betting taxes to the prekindergarten and college scholarship programs already supported by the lottery. But House Speaker Jon Burns never called it to the floor for debate.

"The folks that advocated for the for the sports betting bill worked very diligently," Burns said. "They worked very hard to inform the members. We just didn't get quite get to the spot where we could get it across the finish line this year."

The Senate rejected both the constitutional amendment and an earlier plan that would have allowed betting on sports including horse races without seeking a statewide referendum.

The failures show how far lawmakers are from reaching an agreement, with Cowsert later telling reporters "there's so many crosscurrents" among lawmakers who want different things.

Many Democrats have pushed sports betting as an funding mechanism for needs-based college scholarships. The lottery spends its money on prekindergarten classes and HOPE Scholarships for students who achieve at least a "B" average in high school.

"I'm on the side of the younger students in Georgia. We need needs-based funding," said Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat.

Other lawmakers want to legalize casino gambling or betting on horse races.

"Sports betting creates five jobs. It's all run through this mobile app, whereas horse racing and casinos create thousands of jobs, both in construction and long-term," said Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican.

But another group of lawmakers oppose expanded gambling in any form, saying it's immoral and lures people into betting more than they can afford.

"When we look at sports gambling, there's an addiction issue," said Sen. Marty Harbin, a Tyrone Republican.

Cowsert argued that a constitutional amendment is needed because when Georgia voters approved a state lottery in 1992, sports bets could only be placed in person in a Nevada casino. Now they can be placed online from anywhere.

"I think the only reasonable interpretation is that the lottery would not include sports betting," Cowsert said.

Supporters of the House approach disagreed. Former state Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton wrote an opinion for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce earlier this year asserting that sports betting could be authorized without amending the state Constitution.

Because some Republican oppose sports betting on moral grounds, any bill was likely to need Democratic support. House and Senate Democrats lined up behind the constitutional amendment approach because it would allow the possibility of expanding how any related revenue could be spent.

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