The age-old debate over expanded legalized gambling is back in the Georgia Legislature after a House committee voted Monday to open the door to sports betting and eventually other forms of wagering.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee gave the OK to a pair of bills that put the question of expanding Georgia’s legal betting options beyond the state lottery to voters.

Senate Resolution 135 would create a ballot question to allow voters to remove the restrictions on legalized gambling from the state constitution.

Senate Bill 142 would ask voters to decide whether to allow online sports betting in the state, but not other types of gambling like casinos and horse racing tracks. Those would require further action from the Legislature as well as another vote from residents of the county looking to build those attractions.

Legalizing sports betting could bring in $100 million for educational programs like HOPE and Georgia pre-K, proponents say.

The bills were originally authored by Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican and chair of the powerful Rules Committee, and were focused solely on sports betting.

LaGrange Republican Rep. Randy Nix questioned whether it would be better to keep that focus.

“We are talking about sports betting, I would like to make our constitutional amendment be explicitly that,” he said.

Ga. Rep. Ron Stephens

Amending the constitution once would be more efficient than doing so for every proposed gambling expansion, said Savannah Republican Rep. Ron Stephens, the author of the amendments.

“You would be able to pass a constitutional amendment for only sports betting, but if you want to give the your locals the opportunity, without having to come back next year with Rep. (Derek) Mallow’s suggestion with fantasy sports, with another constitutional amendment or something that’s a sound-alike, look-alike, you would pass the constitutional amendment as it is.”

If the proposal becomes law, the state Legislature will be able to approve further gambling expansions with a simple majority and local voter approval rather than the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment.

“If this thing’s going to bring in as much money as we say it is, are you worried that they won’t vote for it again, because if this is going to bring in all this money and do all this great work, wouldn’t that prove how great this is going to be?” asked Pine Mountain Republican Rep. Vance Smith.

“This sports betting bill does not bring in an enormous amount of revenue,” Stephens said. “$100 million is not a lot of revenue when it comes to the lottery. The lottery has a billion dollars in its fund. So I’m suggesting that we pass the entire thing so that we don’t have to deal with it and leave it up to the locals to make that decision after the general assembly comes back with the enabling legislation.”

“So if we’ve got enabling legislation just on sports betting, and we’ve got the others listed, why don’t we have the enabling legislation just to cover everything in there and then we’d be through with it?” Smith asked.

“We need to come back and address that at a later date, and today’s not the day to do that,” Stephens said. “It’s extremely complicated for anything else on an enabling piece of legislation. This was 60 pages, I believe, and this is only in sports betting. Now imagine if you do anything else, it’s going to be very, very lengthy.”

Passing the legislation this year will also likely prove extremely complicated.

A resolution to change the constitution to allow a vote on horse racing received a majority vote in the Senate earlier this month, but not enough to cross the two-thirds threshold, putting the effort on ice, and lawmakers changing their opinions with this legislation is anything but a sure bet.

Still, the plan received some bipartisan support in the committee, with legislators praising its local control aspect as well as the potential to bring in revenue for programs like rural hospitals, mental health and education.

Ga. Rep. Al Williams

Midway Democratic Rep. Al Williams said he welcomes more dollars for HOPE and especially pre-K.

“We have lines now, lotteries, and people can’t get in because it’s underfunded,” he said. “And if anybody has anything on the table that can eliminate the problems we have in health care and the problems we have in education – no matter how good we’re doing, we leave too many people behind. Big Momma’s been buying a ticket for years with a dollar a dream, and her dream ain’t never gotten Booboo in college yet. Let’s do something that could give him the opportunity to have a solid education and not drop out for lack of $300, $400 or $500 in gap funding.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business...

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