Georgia senator seeks statewide vote for sports betting

February 17, 2023 3:44 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Jeff Amy, Associated Press
February 17, 2023 3:44 PM
  • Jeff Amy, Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia voters should get to decide whether to legalize sports gambling, an influential state senator argued Thursday, as he rolled out a different vision for sports betting than the one being pushed by local pro sports teams.

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Georgia sports executives have been urging lawmakers to legalize the practice outright, saying voters already approved the Georgia Lottery decades ago and that the funds earned from sports betting can go to the prekindergarten and college scholarship programs already supported by the state lottery.

But Senate Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican, has different destinations for the funds in mind and said authorizing sports betting as part of the lottery without giving voters a voice would be “extremely deceptive.” He said that’s not what Georgia voters thought they were approving in 1992 when they passed a constitutional amendment authorizing a lottery.

“I think it’s only fair if we’re going to make that big of a cultural change in our state to let the people of Georgia to decide to do that,” the former Senate majority leader said as presented a constitutional amendment and bill to his committee.

Cowsert’s remarks came hours after Rep. Marcus Wiedower, a Watkinsville Republican, presented House Bill 380 to the House Higher Education Committee. His bill would authorize sports betting without a constitutional amendment as part of the lottery.

“I think, Georgia, it is very ripe for sports betting,” Wiedower said.

He said his bill was being changed to drop physical locations for sports gambling, making it online only.

Wiedower’s bill doesn’t change how lottery money is allocated, telling lawmakers that “if they want to get into that, they can do that on a different bill.”

Some Georgia lawmakers typically attempt to expand gambling every year in the General Assembly, but none have been successful since voters approved the lottery in 1992.

None of the bills have been passed by committees yet, but a sense of inevitability is growing that Georgia will eventually approve some form of sports betting. So far, bets are legally being taken in 34 states, although some of those only allow bets to be placed in person.

A constitutional amendment, as Cowsert favors, would face a more difficult road to enactment, needing a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the General Assembly to pass, and then a majority of voters in a statewide election.

It means that Cowsert must court Democrats, because Republicans don’t have a two-thirds supermajority in either chamber and some Republicans refuse to support gambling on moral grounds.

Cowsert, though, is trying to turn that necessity into a virtue. While the lottery earmarks money for prekindergarten education and merit-based HOPE Scholarships for universities and technical college, Cowsert has worked with Democrats to propose funneling 50% of sports betting proceeds toward needs-based scholarships for public and private colleges.

According to Cowsert’s constitutional amendment, another 25% would go for health care, mental health care, economic development and poverty reduction in poorer parts of Georgia. Prevention and treatment of problem gambling would get 15%, while 5% would go to sponsor new sports events and 5% would go for “innovational” educational programs.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said her party is supporting Cowsert’s approach.

“This is the bill we would like,” Butler said after the committee meeting.

Cowsert said he hoped his approach could also be more appealing to gambling opponents.

“There are a number of legislators who have personal opposition to gambling, but feel like it’s only fair to let the people of Georgia decide,” Cowsert said after the hearing.

While Cowsert’s bill allows unlimited licenses, Wiedower’s at least for now, would have a limit of 16 licenses. It would reserve one license for the lottery, and give one to each of Atlanta’s major sports teams: the Braves, Hawks, Falcons, United and Dream. It would also give licenses to the Masters golf tournament, the Professional Golfers’ Association, and the owners of Atlanta Motor Speedway. Seven licenses would be reserved for betting firms such as DraftKings and FanDuel.

Wiedower said he wanted a limit to avoid “fly-by-night” operators.

While Wiedeower’s bill sets a 15% tax rate, he said he expects discussion about whether to raise that. Cowsert’s bill sets a basic tax rate of 20%, while it would tax some kinds of bets at 25%.

Wiedower’s bill would also prohibit bettors from using credit cards.

“Clearly I do not want to be part of enticing someone to get behind in credit card debt because they’re chasing a bet,” he said.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee is considering a third proposal, Senate Bill 57, which would explicitly include horse racing as part of sports gambling. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Billy Hickman, a Statesboro Republican, would also authorize three horse racing tracks with betting statewide.