Online sports betting back on the table as Georgia lawmakers hijack soapbox derby bill

As the 2023 Legislature draws to a close, a Georgia Senate panel uses a soapbox derby bill to push for the legalization of online sports gambling.

(GA Recorder) — A late entry in the 2023 legislative session revived hopes for supporters of sports betting in Georgia.

There are five chances left for the full chambers of the Georgia Senate and House to vote on online sports betting legislation that was given new life last week when a Senate panel hijacked a bill intended to commend a local soapbox derby. A Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee panel voted 8-1 on Thursday to move forward with House Bill 237, which would legalize sports betting in Georgia after Carrollton Republican Sen. Mike Dugan slammed the tactic used to attach it to an innocuous bill.

Republican House Speaker Jon Burns and Lt. Governor Burt Jones have been open to reviving gambling legislation after lawmakers failed in several attempts this year. On Thursday, Alpharetta Republican Sen. Brandon Beach, who chairs the economic development and tourism committee, thanked the lieutenant governor for his willingness to allow sports betting to get another shot before the session concludes on March 29.

Dugan said the grafting of gambling language into the soap box derby bill would backfire despite claims from the authors of the rewrite. Dugan noted that a change framed as a small tweak involves adding 45 pages to a two-page measure.

“When you hijack a soapbox derby and put sports betting on the back of it, every person that was on the fence in the state of Georgia has just picked a side of the fence,” said the former Senate Majority Caucus leader.

“It will not pass on the (Senate) floor, and I think everybody in here knows it won’t pass on the floor, and the damage you have just done to the sports betting industry by trying this is unfathomable,” Dugan said.

This year, chances the Legislature would vote to legalize sports betting seemed all but doomed. The Senate rejected two proposals ranging from a basic online sports betting bill that would be bolstered with a constitutional amendment to one that would open up online sportsbooks and allow machines at licensed locations. The broader Senate bill called for allowing horse racing tracks, as well as online and on-site kiosks, to accept wagers on professional and collegiate sports online through cell phones, tablets, and laptops.

Senate Bill 57 and a House sports gambling measure did not call for a constitutional amendment. Instead, its Republican sponsors relied on an opinion from former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton that a statewide ballot referendum is not necessary if gambling is handled by the Georgia Lottery.

The language of the substitute bill was still not available online as of Friday, but in the committee presentation, Democratic Sen. Derek Mallow said that the Georgia Lottery would oversee sports betting, including issuing gaming licenses, and that the revenue will be used for the same purpose as the state lottery’s HOPE collegiate scholarship and Pre-K programs.

Language in Lyons Republican Rep. Leesa Hagan’s original legislation seeking to declare the city’s 31-year-old southeast Georgia soapbox derby the state’s official soapbox derby is no longer included in the surviving bill. She called the soapbox derby a source of pride as young people participate in the annual event to race homemade cars with the help of family members and mentors.

“I don’t want my soapbox derby to be associated with sports betting, and I would request that you would strip my language from this,” she told Senate committee members at Thursday’s meeting.

Several times each legislative session, new language is attached to a piece of legislation as a political tactic for supporters to overcome missing a key deadline. None of the bills dedicated to expanding legalized gambling met the March 6 Crossover Day deadline, the last day for a bill to have a smooth path to the governor’s desk.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said most of these wholesale changes to bills that have crossed chambers by the deadline are caused by failed plans. But there are also times when an emergency arises that requires circumventing the normal legislative process to get a bill passed quickly.

Provisions of one bill can be incorporated into another as long as both fall under the same Georgia code of law, such as soapbox derby being a sporting competition. Ironically, the sports betting measure bans placing money on events involving minors.

“Often you would approach the sponsor of the bill, you would transform in some way and give them a heads up and get their agreement to let them do this instead of springing it on them,” Bullock said.

It may take a few years, but Bullock believes legalized sports betting will gain more support as time passes.

Neighboring Tennessee already reaps economic benefits from sports gaming, which it legalized soon after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for online wagering in a 2018 ruling. If other neighboring states join the fold, Bullock predicts Georgia will follow suit, just as it did in the 1990s when south Georgians drove to Florida to buy Powerball tickets and lottery scratch-offs.

Democratic Gov. Zell Miller led the charge for a lottery that has raised billions of dollars for education since 1993.

“Georgia tends not to be the first state to do something new,” Bullock said. “We tend to hang out and let the support build.”

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