Georgia Sports Betting Bill Dies as House Adjourns

Georgia lawmakers adjourned their 2021 legislative session without voting on sports betting legislation, again killing voters’ chance to legalize wagering.

The House adjourned sine die early Thursday morning without voting on a bill that would have placed a sports betting constitutional amendment on the 2022 ballot. The Senate passed both the ballot measure bill as well as a companion regulatory measure several weeks earlier.

Sports betting backers can try to pass sports betting referendum legislation again when the 2022 session begins next January, but another rejection in 2021 following a failed 2020 effort underscores legal wagering’s ongoing political obstacles in the state.

Georgia Sports Betting Background

After months deliberating multiple competing sports betting proposals, lawmakers advanced a pair of companion bills championed by Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis that would place sports betting legalization on the 2022 ballot and regulate wagering if approved by voters, respectively. Backed by the state’s professional sports teams and their affiliate leagues after years of lobbying, the bills put sports betting under the purview of the Georgia Lottery, the state’s lone legal gaming entity and funding source for the popular HOPE scholarships for college students.

With major stakeholders aligned, supporters’ confidence grew after both bills passed the Senate with bipartisan two-thirds supermajorities. A month later, conservative and anti-gambling Republicans would help stall sports betting legislation. Democrats’ opposition to an unrelated voting bill would effectively kill it.

The legislation ping-ponged between House committees and the floor as Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature remained skeptical about the state’s first significant new gaming offering since the lottery’s creation three decades earlier — even though Senate Republicans spearheaded the bill.

As the bills lingered in the House, an even more politically controversial voting regulation bill sucked much of the General Assembly’s political attention and dragged the sports betting legislation with it.

During the 2021 NBA All-Star game earlier this month in Atlanta, several players said the voting regulation bill infringed on voters’ rights. Some Republicans supporting the voting bill criticized the players, which subsequently extended to the NBA and professional sports leagues that were supporting the betting bills.

This turned the sports betting bill into a political cause popular among Republicans ahead of the voting regulation bill, which passed along party lines despite vehement Democrat opposition. Outside organizations including the Georgia NAACP subsequently asked lawmakers to reject sports betting legislation.

With Republicans and now Democrats opposed, the bill had little chance to clear the two-thirds threshold needed to place a constitutional amendment ballot measure. It advanced out of the House Rules committee hours before final adjournment but did not garner a full floor vote.

What Comes Next

Even if passed this year, the referendum wouldn’t come until the 2022 ballot. Lawmakers are set to return for the 2022 session next January, where they can again introduce sports betting legislation ahead of that November’s ballot.

However, the failed 2021 effort eliminates one more shot to legalize sports betting by 2022 and for wagering to begin by 2023. If lawmakers fail again in 2022, legal wagering won’t likely come until 2025.

Some sports betting backers argued the lottery’s approval on a 1992 constitutional amendment preempts requirement for a subsequent vote if sports betting is placed under its purview and considered another gaming offering. However, backers such as Mullis believe an amendment is still required and voter approval would prevent future legal challenges.

Neighboring Tennessee launched its first online sportsbooks six months ago and two North Carolina casinos, which advertise extensively in Georgia’s professional sports venues, opened their retail books earlier this month. The aforementioned Georgia professional sports teams still support legal wagering as too do at least a portion of the Republican caucus that controls both legislative chambers.

The constitutional amendment requirements aside, major political issues remain in the legislature. Pockets of conservative opposition will remain in 2022. This year showed lawmakers from both parties can use Georgia sports betting, a comparatively minor financial issue, as a galvanizing political issue.

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