Georgia Senate passes bill seeking voters’ decision on sports betting

The Georgia Senate has taken significant steps toward expanding the state’s gambling landscape, with two separate proposals – one seeking to legalize sports betting and another one also calling for casino gambling – gaining traction in legislative chambers.

In a move that could potentially pave the way for legalized sports betting, the Senate approved Tuesday a state constitutional amendment allowing voters to decide on the matter in November. Senate Resolution 579 garnered support with a 41-12 vote, marking progress for advocates of regulated sports gambling in Georgia.

Under the resolution, 80% of taxes generated from sports betting would be allocated to prekindergarten programs, with the remainder designated for addressing gambling addiction and funding major sports events in the state. However, some senators, including Sen. Marty Harbin, cautioned against rushing into sports betting, citing concerns over its addictive nature and potential social consequences.

The Tyrone Republican said that asking for a referendum on sports gambling was a mistake. “The people who vote for the constitutional amendment will not have the knowledge and information that you and I have,” Harbin said, adding that the $100 million in tax money each year that sports gambling may raise would not be worth the problems it will create. Besides, Georgia is a prosperous state, he said.

Across the nation, 38 states permit sports betting. While certain states restrict wagers to in-person transactions, the majority facilitate electronic betting accessible from any location. Georgia’s proposed legislation aims to impose a 20% tax on proceeds, following payouts to bettors. Tax rates on sports betting range from 6.75% in Iowa to as high as 51% in Rhode Island and New York, reflecting differing state policies.

Meanwhile, another proposal, Senate Resolution 538, broadens the scope to include casino gambling alongside sports betting. Sponsored by Sen. Carden Summers, the resolution aims to place a referendum on the ballot for Georgia voters to decide on legalizing gambling venues.

Summers said that more than 80,000 Georgians play at casinos outside the state each year with no benefit in terms of jobs and tax revenue coming to Georgia. He also highlighted the economic benefits of casino resorts, emphasizing potential revenue streams for transportation infrastructure and education programs.

As per the resolution, 50% of the tax revenue from sports betting and casinos would go toward the transport sector, and 20% to pre-kindergarten and child-care programs. The other 30% would be allocated to programs addressing mental health and gambling addiction, bolstering rural healthcare services, and supporting Georgia’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Summers noted that Georgia legislators have engaged in prolonged debates regarding the legalization of gambling, yet none of the numerous bills on the matter has made it through the General Assembly. “Let’s put this issue to bed. I trust the people of Georgia to make this decision,” Summers said.

Critics, however, voiced apprehensions regarding the societal implications of expanded gambling. Mike Griffin of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board raised concerns about the potential adverse effects of casinos, including addiction, sex trafficking and suicide. “We can’t let money be the reason we do everything. We can’t let money be the ultimate moral standard,” Griffin said.

The measure to legalize sports betting still has a long way to go, as it would require two-thirds approval in the state House before it would go to the ballot. Seeing the bill’s progress, some lawmakers continue to maneuver to push casino gambling by linking the cause to sports gambling.

Summers argued to other senators Tuesday that lawmakers should give voters a chance to remove all prohibitions on gambling from the state constitution, clearing the way for casinos. His bill, calling for Georgia voters to decide whether to legalize both sports betting and casino gambling, was approved by the state Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee last week.