Georgia Bill Seeks Legal Sports Betting Without Referendum

February 15, 2023
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Legislators in Georgia have started to discuss a new plan to bring sports betting to the Peach State, the latest effort in a multi-year saga that has seen lawmakers employ several different strategies.

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Legislators in Georgia have started to discuss a new plan to bring sports betting to the Peach State, the latest effort in a multi-year saga that has seen lawmakers employ several different strategies.

The latest gambit is a plan that would see mobile sports betting legalized through the Georgia Lottery with up to 18 mobile licensees that include Georgia's major professional sports teams, golf courses, motor sports racetracks, and several untethered licensees.

The Senate Committee on Economic Development and Tourism met on Tuesday (February 14) to discuss the legislation, Senate Bill 57, for the first time.

Bill sponsor Republican Senator Billy Hickman cited the recent advisory opinion from former Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton that the legislature can legalize sports betting without a constitutional amendment as a lottery game.

The Georgia constitution bans casinos and pari-mutuel wagering.

“We don’t have to have a constitutional amendment, “Hickman said during Tuesday’s hearing. “Sports betting is deemed a lottery game.”

“The lottery is the one that’s going to manage this and handle it.”

Melton’s opinion contradicts, at least somewhat, a 2019 opinion from the legislature’s Office of Legislative Counsel that recommended a constitutional amendment instead, conceding that although reasonable arguments could be made on either side of the equation, legalizing without a constitutional amendment “could come down to the roll of a dice,” or, put another way, a likely legal challenge.

Standard legislation would require passage by a simple majority in both chambers and the signature of Republican Governor Brian Kemp, while a constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds majority in each chamber, plus voter approval in a referendum that could be held no sooner than November 2024.

John Kindt, a retired law professor who previously worked at the University of Illinois and is a long-standing critic of gambling expansion, told the committee he believes Melton’s opinion is incorrect.

“I think gambling statutes are going to lose in court, and be, with respect, embarrassing,” Kindt said. “The opinion largely ignores citations to the majority of legal authorities, which substantiate the majority view that a Georgia constitutional amendment is necessary to authorize sports gambling.”

Kindt and others also cited a 2016 opinion applicable to daily fantasy sports that clarifies gambling definitions as part of their argument against the plan.

“When you read a legal opinion about what is gambling, what's not gambling, what refers to what's already legal and what's not legal, this is not legal,” said Mike Griffin, who spoke on behalf of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, one of several religious groups to speak out against the bill during the hearing.

Another point of contention during Tuesday’s hearing was the inclusion of fixed-odds horseracing as part of the bill, which could be one of the issues that ultimately divides supporters on the issue.

A related sports-betting bill, House Bill 380, introduced by Republican Representative Marcus Wiedower on Monday, does not include horseracing.

The House bill would also mandate the Georgia Lottery to oversee and regulate sports betting. Wiedower’s proposal would issue 16 total licenses, with seven licenses reserved for operators such as DraftKings or FanDuel.

Horseracing, much like discussions around casino gambling, has been an issue that has been divisive in Georgia for years. Currently, the state does not offer any form of gambling on horseracing.

Senate committee chairman Republican Senator Brandon Beach said that the committee will likely vote on the bill during a hearing next week.

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