Georgia’s hopes for legal sports betting in 2023 officially ended late last week. Despite numerous bills being proposed during the 2023 legislative session, none of them successfully passed into the opposite chamber.
State legislators failed to come to an agreement on an acceptable way to bring sports wagering to Georgia, as debates about the need for a constitutional amendment proved to be a new sticking point. For several years, roadblocks — often unrelated to sports betting — have popped up and decimated legalization hopes.
Will past barriers to legalization come to light again in 2024, or is the future outlook for Georgia brighter?
Politics doomed 2021 effort
Georgia lawmakers made significant progress to legalize sports betting in 2021. SB 142, which attempted to legalize the activity through a constitutional amendment, passed through the Senate. There was optimism the bill — and separate effort HB 86 — would have support in the House, but an unrelated political disagreement halted those efforts.
Democrats in the House pulled support for sports betting bills due to a controversial voting rights bill signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 25, 2021. The sports betting legislation became a political football rather than a conversation about bringing the merits of legal sports betting to Georgia.
No Gambling Legislation Makes It Out of the 2021 Georgia General Assembly
— Rahul Bali (@rahulbali) April 1, 2021
More roadblocks in 2022, 2023
In 2022, some legislators believed the state was ready for legal mobile sports betting.
Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston told reporters before the 2022 legislative session, “There is an appetite I haven’t seen before to do something.”
That appetite didn’t lead to anything of substance, as an effort from Rep. Ron Stephens to legalize sports wagering was shot down. Stephens blamed political factors as well as lobbying efforts of anti-gambling groups.
“Going into a primary, there were a lot of folks who just didn’t have an appetite at all for putting it on the ballot … on both sides, Democrats and Republicans,” Stephens told Sports Handle in 2022. “The Christian Coalition, the very same people that lobbied against the lottery 30 years ago, are continuing the effort. They did a pretty good job of getting their message out to folks.”
2023 efforts fell short in part due to discussions about the need for a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting. Some legislators, like Sen. Bill Cowsert, felt a constitutional amendment would be the way to bring legal sports betting to Georgia.
“It’s my opinion the only way to do that is with a constitutional amendment because we need to change the constitution to allow this new form of gambling,” Cowsert said during a committee hearing the 2023 legislative session. “There may be some legal technicalities, some sneaky ways to get around that by calling this a lottery game and letting it be under the scope of the lottery and under their control, but to me that is extremely deceptive to our citizenry.”
A few legal experts, however, spoke up ahead of the legislative session saying that sports betting could be legalized as a lottery game without the need for a constitutional amendment. The topic became widely debated by legislators, creating a few competing legalization efforts.
So, if Georgia lawmakers want to legalize sports betting without any constitutional risk, they could allow the Georgia Lottery to oversee and regulate it, just as state lotteries in Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Tennessee and West Virginia (plus DC) are already doing.
— Daniel Wallach (@WALLACHLEGAL) January 11, 2023
Moral objections to gambling remain in the statehouse as well and have proven an annual roadblock for legalization. Anti-gambling lobbyists have done well to influence statewide feelings on the issue.
“I really think we’ve been able to do a good job of stopping gambling expansion here in the state of Georgia,” Michael Griffin, Georgia Baptist Public Affairs representative and lobbyist, said in a video posted on social media. “We could not have done it without your help … continue to pray for us, continue to work and educate people on why the detriments of expanding gambling in this state are far worse than the benefits.”
Additionally, partisan politics played a role at the tail end of the 2023 legislative session. Democrats opposed the expansion of wagering in the state partly because of Republicans ushering through a bill related to transgender youth health care.
Future prospects questionable
There are significant doubts about the state’s likelihood of legalizing sports betting in 2024, especially after 2023 bills failed to get through either the Senate or House. The attempts to legalize in 2021 were actually more promising than 2022 and 2023 efforts.
Not only will the constitutional amendment question continue to divide state legislators, but 2024 is also a presidential election year. National and statewide elections in 2024 could be heated and competitive, likely putting legislative focus on topics other than sports wagering. If history is any indication, sports betting may become a political bargaining tool yet again in 2024.
Bettors in Georgia will likely attempt to cross state lines to use legal mobile sportsbooks — Tennessee’s mobile market includes operators like BetMGM, Caesars Sportsbook, DraftKings, and FanDuel — or they’ll use unregulated platforms to place their wagers for the foreseeable future.