Georgia House Tourism and Economic Development Committee members voted 20-6 on Tuesday to approve legislation that would legalize online sports betting, in a move aimed at expanding gambling without the constitutional amendment that is usually required.
House Bill 86 would authorize the Georgia Lottery to manage an online sports wagering system, with some proceeds going to fund HOPE college scholarships. The bill’s sponsor is the committee’s chairman, state Rep. Ron Stephens. He has also filed legislation that would put a question on an upcoming ballot asking Georgia voters to support allowing casinos in the state.
“This is an opportunity for us to add a small amount of revenue — $40 million — into the current mechanism that we use to fund the HOPE scholarship,” Stephens said, as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When approved in 1992, state law directed the Georgia Lottery to set aside as close as possible to 35% of its proceeds to fund the scholarship, but often the games only send about 25% of their revenue on to state education programs.
According to the legislation, sports betting companies would pay a 14% tax on their income, with all the revenue going to the HOPE scholarship. Players would have to be over 21 to bet, be in Georgia to place a wager and could only bet on professional sporting events. Wagering on college games would not be allowed.
After years of failed attempts to expand legal gambling through a constitutional amendment, which would require two-thirds support in each chamber of the Legislature and a majority of Georgia voters, Stephens said sports betting could be legalized through legislation that only needs the backing of a majority of lawmakers.
HB 86 is backed by the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, a coalition of four professional franchises — the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta United. Powerful Republicans, including House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, have signaled some support for sports betting legislation as well.
During the Tuesday meeting some members expressed concerns about the addictive qualities of gambling and urged stronger safeguards be put in place. “I feel like we really need to have something in place for people that get caught up into this trap, because people are really going broke,” said state Rep. Miriam Paris, D-Macon, who voted for the bill. “Every time I see that (prize) number on billboards, I know that poor people make that number happen.”
The legislation as drafted directs sports facilities to post signs with a support hotline telephone number for people who struggle with gambling addictions. Stephens said the lottery also spends about $400,000 a year for addiction programs.