Georgia Legal Sports Betting: Could it Launch for a Future Masters?
Jamie Squire/Getty Images. Pictured: Masters leaderboard
The sports world shifts its attention to Augusta, Georgia this week for a potential once-in-a-lifetime autumnal Masters Tournament. Like every other Masters to date, legal sports betting won’t be allowed in the tournament’s home state.
Georgia is not among the roughly two-dozen states that accept legal bets or have approved laws to do so. A bill fell short in the waning moments of the state’s 2020 legislative session, dooming hopes for legal wagering in time for this year’s unusual fall Masters and the 2021 tournament as well, especially if it returns to its traditional early-April date.
No Masters patron will be allowed to place a bet this weekend (or even enter the course), but sports betting backers are hoping a legal wager is placed in Georgia sometime in the near future and possibly from Augusta National itself.
That vision is, at best, uncertain at the moment and is likely years away from reality.
Political Realities Hurt Hopes
Despite growing popular support locally and nationwide, Georgia lawmakers are not jumping on board legal sports betting just yet.
A block of conservative gambling opponents remains entrenched in the legislature, particularly among Republicans. Despite a strong showing on the federal level, Democrats underperformed their hopes locally in the 2020 elections, failing to chip away at Republican’s lopsided majorities in both the House and Senate.
Democrats have typically been more willing to back sports betting, but their support means little without a change of heart from Republicans. Party leaders typically don’t advance bills unless they have majority support within their own caucus, a political reality that has partially explained Kentucky’s stalled sports betting legalization efforts despite overwhelming Democratic support. The same scenario could very well play out in Georgia.
And, unlike Kentucky, Georgia has a gambling adversary in the governor’s mansion. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp looms as both a veto threat and a political influencer that could diminish GOP lawmakers’ support for a sports betting bill.
State Law Complicates Matters
Existing state law could also delay or derail sports betting.
Some advocates argue sports betting can be permitted by an act of the legislature if it simply allows the state lottery to offer sports bets. Georgians can already buy lottery tickets online, and proponents frame sports betting as just another legal offering under the lottery’s purview.
A lottery-run sports betting model would likely mean the quickest turnaround from legislation to first bet, but it could also hinder its viability. Industry stakeholders fear a sole-source provider wouldn’t be able to properly serve the market, forcing would-be legal customers back to offshore sites and unregulated bookmakers.
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Others argue any new gambling bill is still subject to a statewide ballot measure. This would require a voter-backed constitutional amendment as well as a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature, a high threshold to clear. The silver lining is a constitutional amendment approved by the General Assembly isn’t subject to the governor’s veto.
If backers in the legislature push for a constitutional amendment, it could open the door for a more successful, multi-operator model, but it would mean an even longer timeframe from legalization to first bet. After January’s Senate election runoffs, the next statewide elections aren’t scheduled until 2022.
That means that even if a sports betting amendment is passed next year, it may not even be technically legal until late 2022, delaying legal wagering until at least 2023.
Supporters will have to weigh either a legislative or constitutional amendment solution for sports betting, while balancing calls for a more expansive legislative package that would permit the state’s first-ever brick-and-mortar gaming facilities. These different approaches could split supporters and further jeopardize what is a difficult legislative process to being with.
Georgia Sports Betting Bill Renews 2021 Hopes
Though massive obstacles remain, some factors favoring sports betting have kept hopes alive for significant action, possibly as early as next year.
Though it was never taken up for a full floor vote, a Senate committee panel approved a legal sports betting bill in 2020, the furthest wagering legislation has advanced in Georgia so far. It could be a starting point for a renewed effort in 2021.
Sports betting also has support from House Speaker David Ralston, who earned another two-year term leading the chamber following this year’s statehouse elections. Ralston, and the rest of the legislature, face a looming budget crunch exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and while sports betting wouldn’t be a panacea, it could be a (relatively) straightforward new revenue source.
Georgia lawmakers will also begin a legislative session for the first time where a neighboring state has legal wagering.
Tennessee, which mirrors Georgia politically and culturally, passed a statewide, mobile sports betting bill, framing it as a way to generate government funds from an activity that was already pervasive, unregulated and untaxed. Not only is Tennessee reaping in-state taxes from its own residents, it is already attracting money from Georgians crossing state lines to bet.
Changing attitudes inside Georgia could also bolster sports battings’ hopes.
As with the rest of the country, polls show Georgians are increasingly supportive of legal gambling, even in one of the few states without any commercial gambling facilities. And, after decades of opposition, the state’s leading professional franchises have also lobbied Georgia lawmakers to approve legal betting options.
Though Georgia’s first-ever legal casinos remain political longshots, a competitive, statewide mobile betting market similar to Tennessee’s seems — potentially — within reach.
That dream remains, but probably not in the next few years. It will still have to overcome entrenched political and logistical obstacles that will not make it easy to place a legal bet in the near future.