Georgia House panel backs referendum to let voters decide on legalizing sports betting

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia voters could decide in November whether they want to allow betting on sports and horse racing, as well casino gambling, under a proposed constitutional amendment advancing in the state House.

The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee on Monday voted in favor of an amended version of Senate Resolution 135, as well as Senate Bill 142, which would legalize sports betting on college and pro sports.

The effort still faces long odds in the closing days of the session. The constitutional amendment must pass both the House and the Senate with a two-thirds majority. The Senate earlier this year rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have permitted only horse racing.

However, the effort does have the backing of Atlanta’s professional sports teams, which are eager to legalize betting on their events in hopes of bolstering fan engagement.

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Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican and longtime proponent of expanding gambling, said people are already placing bets offshore and Georgia should join the roughly 30 states that have legalized sports betting.

“Those of you that that may know you can do sports betting today. It’s it’s on your phone. It’s an app, but keep in mind that money is going offshore to Antigua and some of these other places,” Stephens said. “You’re taxing and regulating, and that’s all, because you’re already doing this particular sports betting.”

Opponents say state-sponsored gambling encourages addiction and other social harms, saying they don’t want to open the door beyond Georgia’s lottery, which voters legalized in 1992 and which collected $5.7 billion in wagers last year. Rep Randy Nix, a LaGrange Republican, called gambling “one of the most addictive things that people can do.”

“This is not something that the state of Georgia wants to its stamp of approval on,” Nix said. “The No. 1 state to do business, we don’t need this. This is what people do that are desperate, and this state is doing extremely well.”

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Lawmakers would have to come back later to pass bills to allow casinos and horse racing, but they would only be allowed in counties where voters approve.

The House proposal would tax sports betting proceeds at 20%, double the amount the Senate had previously proposed. Bettors would have to be 21, and betting on high school games would not be allowed.

The bill would let the Georgia Lottery Corp. give up to nine licenses to companies that want to offer online sports betting in Georgia.

Owners of pro sports teams, auto racing tracks, Augusta National Golf Club and professional golfing associations would also be eligible for licenses. Beyond that, stores could have sports betting machines similar to coin operated amusement machines now regulated by the lottery.

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Half of the money from sports betting would increase funds available for HOPE college scholarships and state subsidies for prekindergarten classes and child care. The other half would go to new financial aid aimed at people from households making less than the state median income of nearly $59,000.

Each operator would also have to pay a $100,000-a-year license fee.

The constitutional amendment says half of any proceeds from casinos and horse race betting would go for health care programs. Of the remainder, 20% would go to economic development in economically distressed parts of the state, 15% to prekindergarten subsidies and 15% to college tuition for people making below the median income.

The amendment would also direct some sports betting licensing fees to a fund to attract sports events and some casino and horse race betting licensing fees to a fund to subsidize arts venues.