Sports gambling creeps forward again in Georgia, but passage remains a long shot


ATLANTA  — Supporters of legal sports gambling in Georgia renewed their push Tuesday, but it's unclear whether they're any closer to assembling a winning coalition after they went bust last year.

The Georgia Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious group with some 1.4 million members, continues to oppose the proposal, saying sports betting would be more detrimental than beneficial to the state’s residents because it produces “increases in human misery.”

“We already know that each new addicted gambler costs the taxpayers $28,000 to $104,000 per year, and, like drug addicts, each gambling addict negatively affects the lives of between seven and 17 other people,” the organization said in its latest resolution opposing gambling.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee voted 8-4 to advance Senate Bill 172, which would legalize, regulate and tax sports betting in Georgia, sending it to the full Senate for more debate. But the measure requires a state constitutional amendment to take effect. That needs two-thirds of both the House and Senate before it could go to voters for approval in a statewide referendum.

Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said the Senate committee’s vote Tuesday came with little notice and no testimony.

Infighting among gambling proponents  reduces the chances of final passage.

The measure's sponsor, Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens, argued again Tuesday that an amendment is needed. His effort to pass a constitutional amendment flopped last year when it won 30 votes, a majority of senators but short of the 38 needed. Senators in 2023 also rejected a bill that would have authorized sports betting and betting on horse races without a constitutional amendment.

Cowsert says he will offer a new constitutional amendment this year to authorize only sports betting, admitting that finding agreement could be like finding “a magic potion.”

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Carden Summers of Cordele plans to introduce an amendment allowing sports betting and casinos, and Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta plans an amendment allowing sports betting, casinos and betting on horse races.

“I don’t see anything to fear from a constitutional amendment," Cowsert said. "I think if you make a policy change like this, you ought to have the buy-in of both parties and the citizens on board to do that, so I embrace that.”

But other lawmakers are doubtful an amendment can win the required two-thirds majority. Republican Sen. Matt Brass of Newnan, who as Rules Committee chair influences what bills go before the whole Senate, could be heard describing the constitutional amendment route as a “quagmire” Tuesday just before the committee voted.

Cowsert also favors a constitutional amendment because it allows sponsors to bargain over how they will allot proceeds. A bill placing sports gambling under the lottery would devote all the money to prekindergarten classes and HOPE Scholarships for students who achieve at least a “B” average in high school.

Many Democrats have pushed sports betting as a funding mechanism for needs-based college scholarships. Others have different destinations in mind. Democratic Sen. David Lucas of Macon repeatedly pressed Cowsert Tuesday to guarantee a stream of income to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon.

Because some Republicans oppose sports betting on moral grounds, any bill is likely to need Democratic support.

But some opponents Tuesday objected to voting on the authorizing bill without knowing where the amendment would channel the money. And Republican Sen. John Albers of Roswell backed the bill but said he didn't like the bargaining over where proceeds would flow, saying he preferred additional money for child care and HOPE Scholarships.

“The other part that I do have a concern with is constantly trying to pick different folks to buy their support and their vote for any particular change," Albers said.