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'There is an appetite this session that I haven’t seen before' | Georgia gambling bill gaining traction

Backers hope 2022 will break a long-term logjam.

ATLANTA — Gambling legislation stalled in the legislature for years may finally pass this year. Backers have been negotiating with reluctant lawmakers, and both sides say a deal may be forming.  

Lawmakers have spent much of the last week negotiating behind the scenes over gambling bills – in an apparent effort to simplify the legislation to allow voters to decide yes or no to gambling.

Gambling has been pushed hard by casino and gaming interests for most of the last decade.

"There are sixty to eighty lobbyists down here every year representing some facet of gambling. And yet it’s not passed," said Mike Griffin. 

The Georgia Baptist Mission Board lobbyist is among the few voices at the capitol lobbying against gambling bills. Griffin has succeeded against legions of well-paid professional lobbyists. But gambling backers have had some subtle and not-so-subtle victories.

Gambling advertising appears regularly – especially in TV coverage of sporting events. Bally – which operates casinos – bought the name of the sports channels that now show Atlanta Braves games. The Braves and other professional sports teams have endorsed a legalized betting on sports – though doing so is still technically illegal in Georgia. 

"You can’t even watch golf now without 'em wanting you to gamble," Griffin said.

Backers say it's short sighted to keep gambling illegal in Georgia.

"It’s going on anyway through bookies and so on. We might as well generate the revenue that we can do and get it done right," said state Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), who is among the backers who say Georgia’s HOPE scholarship can benefit from legalized gambling in Georgia. 

HOPE is already funded with Georgia Lottery proceeds.

Gambling supporters appear to be willing to stop talking about casinos – at least for now – if they can get sports gambling passed this year. It passed the Senate last year. The Senate bill is currently stalled in the House.

Even neutral observers say 2022 feels different. 

"There is an appetite this session that I haven’t seen before to do something" to pass a gambling bill, said House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican who has stayed neutral on gambling bills.

Ralston said this a few days before the legislative session started. Yet opponents have prevailed – for now. 

"I think that the gambling industry sees Georgia as some sort of virgin territory that they can come to," Griffin said. "It’s an industry that’s based off of people losing."

Any gambling bill would subsequently require a constitutional amendment, put before Georgia voters on a statewide ballot.