Georgia's Capitol in Atlanta

Georgia’s State Capitol in Atlanta

ATLANTA — A constitutional amendment to legalize online sports betting in Georgia is the only game in town after the state House of Representatives shelved a bill that would not require a constitutional change.

Lawmakers still had not taken up House Bill 86, legalizing sports betting by statute, when the General Assembly’s annual Crossover Day deadline fell shortly before midnight Monday.

With that bill essentially dead for the year, the only sports betting measure left for lawmakers to consider is a constitutional amendment the state Senate passed last week putting the issue on the statewide ballot next year for Georgia voters to decide.

While a coalition of Atlanta’s four professional sports teams was pushing for the House bill, the group is comfortable pursuing the constitutional amendment route, Billy Linville, spokesman for the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, said Tuesday.

“We still believe sports betting could be done by statute,” Linville said. “(But) we’re in a strong and positive position. … We’re confident it will move forward.”

The most significant difference between the House bill and the Senate legislation is that constitutional amendments require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to pass, while statutes only need simple majorities.

Sports betting cleared that difficult hurdle last week, passing in the Senate 41-10, marking the first time in more than a decade of effort that any expansion of legalized gambling in Georgia beyond the lottery has made it to the floor of either legislative chamber and passed.

“We were not surprised,” Linville said. “This is a popular piece of legislation throughout Georgia. We knew we were in a strong position once we got it to the floor.”

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, was the chief sponsor of House Bill 86. But he, too, said Tuesday he believes he can get the constitutional amendment through the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee, which he chairs.

“So many people are more comfortable with pushing this on to voters,” he said. “I’m supremely confident it will come out of committee.”

Stephens said a key reason he favored passing online sports betting by statute is that it could have been put in place quickly, so the state could begin bringing in tax revenue from the proceeds. Going the constitutional amendment route means delaying sports betting until 2023 because it couldn’t be put on the statewide ballot until November 2022.

Under the Senate measure, a state tax of 16% on the proceeds from online sports betting would be divided between need-based scholarships, rural health care and broadband deployment.

“I just hate the loss of that potential revenue,” Stephens said.

An amendment senators approved on the floor of the chamber last week specifies that least 50% of the state’s share of the proceeds from sports betting would be earmarked for needs-based scholarships. The lottery-funded HOPE Scholarships program originally based awards on family income when the lottery was created during the 1990s but soon was converted into strictly a merit-based initiative.

Legislative Democrats pushed for needs-based scholarships to be included in the legislation in order to win their support.

Stephens said needs-based scholarship awards have become increasingly essential as cuts to HOPE awards that began in 2011 have eaten into the tuition coverage it provides. At one time, HOPE covered full tuition, books and fees for eligible students.

“Especially now that HOPE only pays 70% of the scholarship, it’s become a [financial] barrier,” Stephens said.

The constitutional amendment’s Senate supporters also sought to attract votes by putting a provision in the legislation prohibiting bettors from using credit to place bets and limiting the amount of money a bettor could deposit into his or her online account each month.

A major argument against legalizing sports betting has been that it would lead to problem gamblers squandering their paychecks or the family’s grocery money.

“The issue for us was to do what we could with the compulsive gambler to make sure they don’t bet the farm on sports betting,” Stephens said.

With time growing short in the 2021 General Assembly session, Stephens said he plans to bring the Senate legislation before his committee soon.

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