Georgia lawmakers are set to meet in a conference committee on Monday to hash out details of a sports betting proposal, but whether or not they do — or if either chamber will ultimately approve it — is more a question of politics than whether or not legal sports betting has support, according to multiple sources.
Dating back to mid-February when a House committee approved a HB 86 and sent it to the House floor, the issue has been used as a political football in a high-stakes game about a voting rights bill that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law on March 25. House Democrats pulled their support of the sports betting bill, sponsored by Republican Ron Stephens, in late February over the voting-rights issue.
HB 86 was on the House floor for a vote on Feb. 25, but the vote was postponed three times before the bill was first withdrawn on March 3. The bill had moved fairly easily through the Republican-dominated House until it got to the floor, where a two-thirds majority is required for passage. The Republicans have a 103-76 majority. A two-thirds majority is 118 votes.
Even though the voting rights proposal is now law, the Republicans do have some political capital left to spend, if they are willing to give in to the Democrats pushing for sports betting revenue to be earmarked for needs-based scholarships, according to an industry source.
Sports betting bills at odds
The bill that worked its way through the House would allow for statewide mobile sports betting with remote registration, would allow pro leagues to partner with sports betting operators, sets the tax rate on revenue at 16%, requires the use of official league data, calls for a minimum of six licenses, and bans betting on college sports. The bill names the Georgia Lottery as the regulator, and in its original form, it sought to legalize sports betting via an expansion of lottery offerings rather than through a voter referendum.
UPDATE on online sports betting legislation in Georgia
Both pieces of legislation dealing with online sports betting in Georgia have been sent back to the House Rules Committee. They were on the State House calendar for a possible vote today. #gapol #GPBLawmakers @gpbnews https://t.co/pIMOBQNFKN
— Rahul Bali (@rahulbali) March 25, 2021
On the Senate side, lawmakers determined early on in the process that sports betting could only be made legal through a constitutional amendment, and on March 5 approved a pair of bills that call for a referendum (though no language is included) and sports betting framework. That framework included making the Georgia Lottery the regulator but allowing it to create a gaming commission. SB 142, the framework bill, calls for statewide mobile/online wagering and would allow the Georgia Lottery to have its own mobile skin, or platform.
The referendum would be on the November 2022 ballot.
The bill is similar to the House version in many ways, though it sets the tax rate at 10% and would ban wagering only on Georgia college sports teams. Another key difference is that the original version of the House bill would not allow for promos to be deducted from gross gaming revenue, while the Senate version would allow the deduction.
Scholarships a key issue
House Minority Caucus Chr. Rep. Billy Mitchell says Dems are holding up a bill to legalize sports betting in Georgia not only because of the GOP election reform bills but also because no needs based scholarship was included nor provisions for minority vendors. @wsbradio #gapol pic.twitter.com/JFIdaTYMYz
— Sandra Parrish (@WSBParrish) February 26, 2021
As the proposal was moving through the Senate, a key issue debated was how sports betting revenue would be spent, and the bill currently calls for it to be earmarked for multiple educational programs, rural health care, and the expansion of broadband internet availability. The bill is sponsored by Republican Jeff Mullis.
Democratic lawmakers on the Senate side consistently asked for sports betting revenue to be directed to the state’s HOPE Scholarship program, which awards needs-based scholarships and is wholly funded by the lottery. Republicans want to spread the revenue, but Democrats staunchly support earmarking it for needs-based scholarships. The Democrats are also interested in strengthening the minority participation component of the bill.
Whether Republicans are willing to give on scholarships and minority business participation will ultimately decide the fate (at least for this year) of legal sports betting in Georgia. The General Assembly is set to adjourn March 31.