ATLANTA — Sports gambling advocates in Georgia were dealt a setback Thursday when the State Senate rejected a bill that would have allowed sports betting, including on horse races.
Lawmakers voted 37-19 against Senate Bill 57, which would have ordered the state lottery to set up sports betting and wagering on horse races, so long as winnings at the track were paid by the track itself or another company instead of by the betting pool. That traditional set-up, which also allows odds to change right up to race time, is known as pari-mutuel betting.
Lawmakers are set to revisit the issue before Monday. Another bill that would allow sports betting but exclude horse racing is awaiting a vote in the Georgia House, and a proposal to let voters decide the question via referendum could still get a vote in the Senate. Georgia’s Constitution explicitly bans pari-mutuel betting and casinos.
Avoiding a constitutional amendment is an advantage because it requires a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of the General Assembly, then approval by a majority of voters statewide. Republicans don’t have a two-thirds majority in either legislative chamber and some in the party refuse to support gambling on moral grounds. A standard bill, like the one defeated in the Senate Thursday, needs only a simple majority of both chambers and the signature of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
Kemp has signaled a willingness to legalize sports betting.
Some Georgia lawmakers typically attempt to expand gambling every year, but none of the efforts have succeeded since voters approved a state lottery in 1992. However, a sense of inevitability is growing that Georgia will eventually approve some form of sports betting. The practice is already legal in 34 states, although only some allow in-person gambling.
Proponents said Georgia could reap new revenue from gambling that's already taking place illegally.
“Right now we have unregulated sports betting that's done underground with bookies, and I would argue that's more harmful to people,” said state Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican.
Opponents contend Georgia shouldn't expand gambling beyond the state lottery, which reaps about $1.5 billion in annual revenue for prekindergarten programs and college scholarships.
“The issue of gambling is that there’s always a loser," said Sen. Marty Harbin, a Tyrone Republican. "There can never be a winner without loser if the game is fair, and the other part is the house always wins.”
Senate Bill 57 would have required its proceeds to be spent on college scholarships and prekindergarten, the constitutionally mandated programs the lottery already pays for.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Billy Hickman, a Statesboro Republican who owns and races horses. He argued that horse racing would have a greater economic impact than other sports gambling because it would support farmers and horse breeders.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton wrote an opinion for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce earlier this year asserting that sports betting could be authorized without amending the state Constitution.
The business group and Atlanta’s professional sports teams are backing the House bill to authorize sports betting.