Senate Committee Debates Georgia Sports Betting Bill Constitutionality

This year’s first Senate hearing on sports betting in Georgia brought out the usual voices speaking against a gambling-related issue.

Sen. Jeff Mullis introduced SB 142, which would legalize GA sports betting through the lottery, to the Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee Thursday.

Many in the room were familiar with sports betting proposals. The committee heard SB 403 last year, though that bill died without much momentum.

While the vibe from the committee was relatively neutral on the bill, there were a few particularly fiery opponents who spoke against it.

Is Georgia sports betting bill constitutional?

There’s debate over whether SB 142 and a similar House bill could pass legally in Georgia. The state requires a constitutional amendment for an expansion of casino gambling.

Robert Highsmith from the Atlanta Hawks said it would be constitutional to pass the bill, but admitted it would be “cleaner” with an amendment. Amending the constitution would also require a voter referendum, which couldn’t be held until the 2022 election, he added.

Highsmith noted casino gambling isn’t defined in the constitution. He also pointed to the fact the Georgia Lottery regulates all coin-operated amusement games, like pinball and Skee-Ball. Those games, by nature, have an element of skill like sports betting, he said.

Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert didn’t seem totally sold one way or another. Mullis confirmed with Cowsert he also has a constitutional amendment ready if need be.

“I do have a constitutional amendment ready,” Mullis said. “But I have heard from the attorney general’s office and they’re not sure if you need one. I’ve had legislative council, some say you don’t need one, some say … it would make it cleaner. So the debate is all around us, however, I have one available and ready if need be.”

Differences between Senate and House proposals

There are a couple of stark differences between SB 142 and HB 86:

  • SB 142 taxes sports betting at 10% compared to 20% in HB 86, which was amended Monday. There’s talk of potentially raising the Senate bill’s rate as well.
  • SB 142 allows betting on college sports other than games including schools in Georgia. HB 86 would ban all betting on college sports.
  • The Senate proposal allows retail partnerships with anyone that holds a master license for coin-operated amusement games. The House proposal only legalizes online sports betting.

Doom and gloom oppose Georgia sports betting

There were only three opponents testifying against the bill, all from religious organizations.

Mike Griffin, public affairs rep for the Georgia Baptist Convention, said the same arguments to legalize sports betting – increased education funding and eliminating the black market – will be used to push drugs and prostitution later. He also cited a 2016 Bloomberg story concerning porn giant Vivid and daily fantasy sports, which to him showed a clear marriage of online gambling and porn.

“It’s not that they’re going to show you pornography – they’re going to tempt you, they’re going to put things out there to try to entice you to come to it,” Griffin said.

Virginia Galloway, regional field director for Faith and Freedom Coalition, suggested it’s better to keep sports betting illegal because offshore operators don’t have the same perceived rights as regulated sportsbooks:

“Some of the contrast between illegal gambling operators and government-sanctioned operators is that no illegal gambling operator can put a lien on your home to collect the gambling losses like legal operators can. No illegal operator sends free gambling wagers by direct mail to your house to lure you back like legal operators do.”

Joshua Johnson, a pastor from Gwinnett County, assured more “broken homes” if sports betting is legalized:

“The number one reason for relationships to end is money problems and passing this bill will only increase the number of failed relationships, broken homes, destitute citizens and addicted people.”

Sen. David Lucas took a hard stance against those bringing morality into the situation:

“You cannot legislate morality. Right after the Civil War, Georgia was gambling. The widows of the soldier were gambling to raise money to take care of the kids. It’s in the history books. … It’s debatable, we have folks coming in to talk about it but I’ve never seen a preacher turn down a donation in the church that came from gambling.”

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