Sports betting clears state Senate over objections of Georgia Baptists; bill remains a longshot for final passage


ATLANTA — Over the objections of Georgia Baptist leaders, a proposal to legalize sports betting in Georgia cleared the state Senate on Thursday, but gamblers may not want to reach for their wallets just yet.

A series of legislative hurdles still remain, meaning the sports betting proposal remains a longshot in the state.

Senate Bill 386, which passed 35-15, would empower the Georgia Lottery Corp. to award 16 licenses to sports betting facilities, but only if voters first approve an amendment to the state's constitution to specifically allow sports betting, just as they did with the state lottery in 1992.

That means  lawmakers would have to pass a second bill setting up a ballot referendum for a constitutional amendment. Such a bill would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the Senate and House. 

Thursday's vote would suggest that such a measure doesn't have enough support to pass the Senate at this point becasue it would need 37 votes, two more than were cast for the Thursday's measure.

Supporters said legalizing sports betting and taxing revenues would generate more than $100 million that would be used for college scholarships and pre-school education programs.

Opponents said societal costs would far exceed that.

“The $125 million we’re proposing to raise from this isn’t raised by people dropping a wager on the Super Bowl once a year,” said state Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth. “For the business model to work, it depends on gambling addiction, regulars who, day in, day out, week in, week out, are placing these bets.”

Setzler said the legislation, if it receives final passage, could become a scourge on Georgians.

“Let’s tap the brakes,” he said. “Let’s act with wisdom, justice, moderation and courage.”

The Georgia Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious organization with 1.4 million members, is now calling on the House to stop the legislation.

“Our collective voice has the power to prevent the expansion of gambling via sports betting,” said Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “Protecting our families and children from the risks of gambling addiction is paramount.”

Under the proposed legislation, the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Dream, and United would each receive one license, as would the Augusta National Golf Club, the Professional Golf Association, and the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Seven licenses would be available to sports betting facilities through an application process overseen by lottery officials. The lottery corporation would also receive a license.

The legislation calls for 20% of adjusted gross revenues derived from sports betting to go to Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs. An amendment added to the legislation on Thursday added the requirement for a constitutional amendment.

A similar sports gambling bill cleared the Senate Regulated Industries & Utilities Committee earlier this month. 

Georgia Baptists oppose that measure as well.

“The disastrous effects of problem gambling are well known and well documented,” Mack Parnell, executive director of the Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition, told lawmakers last week.