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Georgia voters just got more likely to get a say on any sports betting law

Maggie Lee
Georgia State Capitol. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

There’s been an idea that next year, Georgia lawmakers might OK sports betting via a simple majority legislative vote and new law. But a new legal opinion suggests that if sports gambling supporters in the state Legislature want an airtight law, they better first ask Georgia voters and change the Georgia Constitution.

State Senate gambling study committee in a Capitol hearing room

A state Senate study committee that’s reviewing sports betting, horse wagering and casinos is set to have at least two more meetings before drawing up recommendations. Credit: Maggie Lee

There’s more than one way to interpret laws on betting and gambling, according to an Oct. 1 opinion from Georgia’s official nonpartisan state legislative counsel.

But the opinion says that to avoid any risk of a lawsuit, the surest way to legalize sports betting is via an explicit state constitutional amendment. That would require a two-thirds approval by both the state House and Senate, plus majority approval by Georgia voters.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, was the one asking whether sports betting could be authorized by a mere majority of the state Legislature or if it would need to meet that higher bar to change the Georgia Constitution, just like casinos and horse wagering would. He’s chairing a state Senate study committee that’s reviewing all kinds of betting.

“In my reading of that letter, it needs a constitutional amendment,” Beach said after a Tuesday hearing.

Georgia legislators are likely to see one or more casino or horse racing bills next year, just as they’ve seen in recent years. But sports betting only became a prospect last year, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the industry to states besides Nevada.

But there are still tons of questions about how Georgia might allow or regulate any kind of expanded gambling, be it horse racing, casinos or sports betting. And nobody is liable to come out with a draft bill or bills until at least December, and really, probably later than that.

For example, lawmakers will have to set taxes or fees and decide whether to dedicate to dedicate the money to anything in particular, like education.

Beach’s Tuesday hearing focused on sports. Questions there include things like whether to allow betting on college sports, whether to require folks to register somewhere in person before betting via mobile apps, or where to put betting kiosks.

Alpharetta-based Scientific Games does work in gaming markets all over the world — including managing the Georgia Lottery’s instant games.

Sports betting “is going mobile, it’s going in-play, in-event wagering,” said company VP for Lottery Systems Business Development Americas John Osenenko, speaking to the state Senate committee.

Capitol Views by Kelly Jordan

People aren’t so much betting on the final score anymore as on what happens as it’s happening: like wagering on the first person to score.

Right now, Georgians who want to bet on sports can illegally use offshore websites, but they’re going to have problems getting winnings back onshore.

And legal betting sites in other states have laws and technology in place to fence off their sites for their state residents only.

As for the Georgia Legislature, it remains to be seen if lawmakers will consider putting all three kinds of gambling — casinos, horses and sports — onto one statewide ballot question or possibly three. Or how many details they will try to work out before any statewide referendum.

It could be that lawmakers decide to ask voters about the principle of expanded betting first, then work out the details later. Or offer deep details and a referendum at the same time.

Or it could be, like in years past, that there’s lots of talk, but no law passes.

The annual legislative session begins in January.

Documents:

Necessity of Sports Betting Constitutional Amendment

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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