Georgia senators pass sports gambling bill amidst constitutional amendment debate

Georgia senators voted 35-15 on Thursday to pass Senate Bill 386, a measure that seeks to allow sports gambling in the state. The bill will now move to the House for further debate.

However, a separate vote by 34 senators added a requirement for a state constitutional amendment, creating uncertainty about the ultimate passage of the bill. The constitutional amendment would need support from at least 38 senators.

The maneuver highlights the differing opinions among Georgia lawmakers regarding the expansion of legal gambling and the methods to implement it. The disagreement has led to the failure of similar bills in previous years, including 2023.

Sen. Jason Esteves, an Atlanta Democrat, stated: “This issue is frustrating because so many of us generally agree about it, but year after year, we’ve seen it get stuck.”

Supporters of passing the bill without an amendment argue that sports betting could be authorized under the existing Georgia Lottery, established in 1992 through a constitutional amendment. This approach would legally allocate proceeds to prekindergarten classes and HOPE Scholarships for high-achieving students.

Sen. Clint Dixon, a Buford Republican, emphasized the financial benefits, suggesting that sports betting could generate over $100 million in state tax revenue annually. Dixon’s bill also proposes gradually spending down a substantial part of the Georgia Lottery’s $2 billion reserves, further increasing funding.

However, many senators who voted for the bill also supported the constitutional amendment, allowing sports gambling proceeds to be directed to other purposes, such as need-based scholarships.

Democrats, in particular, have advocated for need-based scholarships, a crucial factor as some Republicans oppose gambling on moral grounds. Democrats have previously withheld their votes, seeking negotiations on other issues.

The debate extends to whether Georgia voters intended sports betting to be included when they approved the lottery in 1992. Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican, argued that denying a statewide vote on the constitutional amendment was “sneaky” and warned of potential legal challenges.

Efforts to pass a constitutional amendment failed last year, falling short of the required 38 votes. Another Senate committee proposed a bill earlier this session requiring a constitutional amendment, but there has been no further progress.

The bill passed on Thursday would impose a 20% tax on proceeds, excluding prizes paid to gamblers. Nationwide, tax rates for sports betting vary, ranging from 6.75% in Iowa to 51% in Rhode Island and New York.

Under the proposed measure, one license would be granted directly to the Georgia Lottery. Eight licenses would be allocated to professional sports entities in Georgia, including the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Dream, Atlanta United, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Augusta National, and PGA.

The Georgia Lottery would distribute seven additional licenses without ties to pro sports teams, requiring a $100,000 application fee and an annual license fee of $1 million.