Legislation to permit sports betting in Georgia made a comeback Friday in the state Senate as lawmakers scramble to drum up new revenues to plug the state’s coronavirus-ravaged budget.
A measure by Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, that would legalize sports betting and hand management responsibilities to the Georgia Lottery Corporation was tacked onto a separate bill dealing with traffic tickets.
It would allow online betting platforms like FanDuel and Draft Kings to operate legally, so long as they secure licenses from the lottery. People who are 21-years and older in Georgia could place bets.
Revenues from sports betting, which Jones pegged at a “conservative estimate” of $60 million annually, would go to fund Georgia’s HOPE scholarships for state university students and preschool programs.
Supporters say those revenues would also be a boon for the state budget, which is set for spending cuts of roughly $2.6 billion for the 2021 fiscal year.
On Friday, Jones said a bump in revenues plus the existing management know-how by the lottery should make the bill palatable for those wary of freeing up more forms of gambling in Georgia.
“This right here, the online betting program, is I think an answer to adding significant revenue dollars to a system [that] moving down the road will continue to need more dollars,” Jones said Friday. “And you’re taking an activity that is currently going on right now.”
Jones’s sports betting package was added to House Bill 903, a short bill tweaking motor vehicle citation rules that flew out of the state House of Representatives by a near-unanimous vote in March.
It passed out of the Senate Special Judiciary Committee in a vote early Friday morning and now heads to the full Senate. The committee, chaired by Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, is composed entirely of Democratic lawmakers.
Gambling legislation has had a rocky road in the General Assembly in recent years, including during the current 2020 legislative session. A measure to let voters decide whether to legalize sports betting, casinos and horse racing died in the House in March.
Even Jones’s bid for sports betting looked dead in the water. A measure he brought to legalize the activity, Senate Bill 403, died quietly in the Republican-controlled Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee without a vote in March.
Gambling aficionados have long urged the state legislature to give voters the final say in whether they want to partake in gaming forms besides just the lottery, which sends millions of dollars each year to the popular HOPE program. Detractors call the activity a moral vice that squanders people’s money and family time.
But the money crunch brought on by the state’s economic slowdown amid the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a new variable into the gambling equation. Faced with deep spending cuts, lawmakers are seeking ways to drum up revenues for the budget.
Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, said Friday she was concerned about a lack of provisions guaranteeing funds for preschool programs in Jones’s measure but said its passage would help ease the pain for state agencies facing budget cuts.
“I have consistently said that we can’t cut ourselves out of this deficit that we’re facing right now,” said Williams, D-Atlanta. “And we have to look at additional revenue streams.”
Local sports organizations also turned out Friday to praise passage of the measure out of committee. Steve Koonin, the CEO of the Atlanta Hawks basketball organization, said the sports-betting measure would boost fan interest in the sport while bolstering state revenues.
“During this difficult time for our professional sports teams, maintaining and building our engagement and relationship with fans is absolutely critical,” Koonin said.