Georgia Won’t Gamble this Year on Sports Betting, Casinos

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

Apr 13, 2022
Key Points
  • State lawmakers took a pass on legalizing sports betting and casinos for another year in Georgia.
  • Backers say taxing sports betting and casinos could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for local preschools and college scholarships.
  • Opponents worry about addiction issues and economic hardships for low-income gamblers.

The Gist

Once again, Georgia lawmakers won’t roll the dice this year on legalizing more kinds of gambling like sports betting and casinos, leaving potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on the table for preschools, college scholarships and low-income students.

What’s Happening

After almost a decade of false starts, this was supposed to be the year state lawmakers finally paved the way for more gambling in Georgia besides just the lottery, according to many Capitol insiders.

The General Assembly’s most powerful lawmaker, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), signaled he’d support a measure letting Georgia voters decide whether to allow casinos, sports betting and horse racing in their communities. It was the first time an elected official of Ralston’s stature threw political weight behind increased gaming.

Pro-gambling lobbyists flocked to the State Capitol. Big-name casino groups eyed prime real estate around Atlanta, Augusta and Columbus. Local professional sports teams and sports-betting companies prepared to divvy up new gaming licenses among themselves.

Then it all fell apart.

A bill to legalize sports betting and a separate measure to potentially allow casinos and horse racing imploded in the last days of vote-wrangling for the 2022 session, which ended April 4. Legislation on forestry taxes replaced the main gambling measure. Once-hopeful lawmakers and gambling backers blamed bitter election-year politics for the defeat.

“It was flat-out nasty at the end,” said state Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), the leading proponent for the gambling measures. “It wasn’t about educating the kids. It became, ‘If I’m not going to win, you’re not going to win, either.’ ”

Why It Matters

As Georgia’s only form of legal gambling, the lottery has funded local preschool programs and the HOPE scholarship for college students with good enough grades to the tune of around $24 billion since 1992.

Expanding gambling options would likely add to that money pot, supporters say.

Backers of sports betting say it could raise up to $100 million a year from a 20% tax on proceeds from local sports bets. That’s on top of potentially hundreds of millions more from several casinos that could open in the coming years, should lawmakers and local voters give their blessing.

Gambling supporters say the money would pump more funding into preschool programs that have lost teachers due to low salaries, as well as bolster the HOPE scholarship, which has scaled back award amounts in recent years as more students qualify.

Read our story about how Georgia funds preschool programs with lottery dollars by clicking the image above. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Casinos also mean big business, supporters say. Robert Wright, a former Columbus city council member who has long lobbied for a local casino, said plans in the works for a $200 million Columbus-based “destination resort” could bring 600 to 700 new jobs.

“It’s like bringing a new industry into town,” Wright told State Affairs. “I think it would do so much for the continuous growth of the river community.”

Behind the Scenes

For all the promises of more money, detractors are quick to note gambling has its pitfalls.

Opponents warn about the risks for gambling addiction, particularly if casinos set up shop in poor areas. Many faith-based groups have made it clear to lawmakers that they won’t tolerate sports betting or casinos in Georgia, calling it both a moral vice and harmful to lower-income residents.

Calls to the Georgia Crisis and Access Line from those seeking help with gambling problems  more than doubled during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, from 999 calls from mid-2018 to mid-2019, to 2,037 calls from mid-2019 to mid-2020, according to the most recently available state data.

“The facts are clear that gambling expansion through devices like sports betting, horse racing and casinos would cause an uptick in addictions, bankruptcies, lost jobs, crime, children at risk, sex trafficking, suicide and a negative impact on personal and governmental economics,” said Mike Griffin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Ministry Board.

Lawmakers also couldn’t agree on where the money from gambling would ultimately end up, according to insiders who spoke with State Affairs. Some lawmakers wanted gambling dollars to go only toward merit-based scholarships for students such as the HOPE, rather than also to need-based scholarships for kids from low-income families, Stephens said.

Controversial bills this year on guns, elections and what can be taught in schools also soured the appetite for lawmakers to tackle another testy subject like gambling, according to many involved in the debate.

“You’re just left scratching your head about the process,” said Billy Linville, a lobbyist with the Atlanta firm Lexicon Strategies who represented sports teams in supporting the sports-betting measure. “The confidence that this is ever going to happen will certainly be shaken.”

What’s Next?

While gambling hasn’t raised the white flag yet in Georgia, supporters admit confidence that was riding high a few months ago has taken a tumble.

Linville called failures on the sports-betting front this year “a major disappointment” since more than half of states including Tennessee, North Carolina and Mississippi have already approved some form of sports betting.

Meanwhile, sports betting still goes on in Georgia, though it’s done illegally through offshore mobile platforms without regulation and tax benefits for the state, Linville and others say. They expect another push next year for sports betting.

“There are too many companies interested,” said Bruce Bowers, an Atlanta-based lobbyist who pushed for the sports-betting measure. “There’s too much of that activity that goes on illegally for the state not to have an interest in regulating and taxing it.”

After stumbling again this year, casinos likely won’t crop up in Georgia for many years more – if ever.

Rick Lackey, a real estate broker in the Atlanta area, said he’s worked with several casino groups on identifying potential sites in Georgia. One casino representative recently told me that “Georgia is on the back-burner now” for future casino developments, Lackey said.

“Everybody is incredibly disappointed,” Lackey told State Affairs. “I feel like we’ve lost some credibility in Georgia to the casino world.”

Know someone struggling with gambling addiction? Call the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225.

Join the Conversation

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