Hopes for an expedited sports-betting launch in Georgia took a hit on Thursday (March 2) as the state's Senate voted down a bill that would have legalized sports wagering without a constitutional amendment.
Despite only requiring a simple majority for passage, the Senate voted 19-37 to defeat Senate Bill 57, a proposal that would have permitted mobile sports betting through licensed professional sports teams and other untethered operators.
“It’s a bad business,” said Senator Marty Harbin, a Republican who spoke at length against the bill on the Senate floor. “The issue with gambling is there’s always a loser.”
“The number one problem in the number one state to do business is labor and workforce,” he added. “We need those in businesses that are win-win businesses in that respect.”
Sponsor Billy Sullivan argued that the bill would have created $250m to $300m in new funding sources via taxes applied to sports-betting revenue.
In addition to concerns about whether legalizing sports betting requires a constitutional amendment and traditional anti-gambling voices, one of the biggest concerns senators voiced throughout the process was attaching the legalization of wagering on horseracing in the state to the bill.
“This was a horseracing bill that the sponsor slapped an old sports-betting legislative wrapper on,” said Jeremy Kudon, a lobbyist for the law firm Orrick that represents many major sports-betting operators and professional sports leagues, on Twitter after the vote. “This was not a bill that sports betting stakeholders lobbied for — although two vehicles are always better than one.”
Customarily, horseracing legalization has not been especially popular in Georgia, a state where the only legal forms of gambling are a state lottery and coin-operated amusement machines, and a separate bill that contains similar sports wagering provisions in the House does not include provisions for horseracing.
Thursday’s defeat is not yet a death blow for sports betting in Georgia’s 2023 legislative session.
Bills to legalize sports wagering via a constitutional amendment remain active in both the House and Senate, but those bills would require a two-thirds majority to pass and would trigger a voter referendum that could not be held until November 2024.
A further House bill that would not include an amendment, House Bill 380, also remains active and is ready to receive a vote on House floor, but any bill would need to clear at least one of the two chambers by Monday’s crossover deadline to remain in play for this legislative session.
The legal question of whether a constitutional amendment is required was reinvigorated this year when sports-betting backers commissioned an opinion from former Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton and the retired judge argued that the state could legalize sports betting through the lottery without requiring a referendum.
The state General Assembly’s legislative counsel had previously argued that although credible legal arguments could be made on either side, passing a bill without a constitutional amendment would likely be challenged in court and that legalizing betting with an amendment would be the safest route to avoiding a legal fight.