Analysis: Georgia Sports Betting Constitutional Question Key To Discussion

Posted on February 23, 2021
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Written By on February 23, 2021

That’s right, it is the legislative season again: the time of year where legislatures around the country bring tremendous hope, often, to only let us down.

But after 2020, maybe there is some reason to be optimistic. With COVID-19 likely to be brought under control in the next few months states are looking for ways to fire their economies back up.

Georgia is apparently no exception. Last week, Representatives Stephens, Mitchell, Hawkins, and a number of others put House Bill 86 in the Georgia House hopper. The bill has just progressed to the rules committee, picking up a tax rate hike along the way.

The bill would authorize sports betting in Georgia through the Georgia Lottery. But there is potentially a hiccup, as this bill seeks to legalize sports betting without amending the Georgia Constitution.

Past no predictor of the future?

The Peach State tried to pass a sports betting bill in 2020, but those efforts fell short in June. Stephens referred to last year’s bill as a “Hail Mary” that just did not quite make it.

Notably, the 2020 bill would have amended the Constitution to allow for sports betting. Last year’s sports betting bill was one of a series of bills that would have amended the Constitution to allow for a significant gaming expansion across the state.

Coming through in the clutch?

Last month the Biloxi Sun Herald quoted Stephens as saying sports betting is going to be an easy one to pass:

It clearly does not require a constitutional amendment. … It’s just a matter of us giving the (Georgia) Lottery Commission direction and authority they already have.

The flop of the 2020 bills was at least partly related to the attempt to pass the bills as constitutional amendments, which in Georgia would require three-fifths of each side of the legislature. But, it seems unlikely that everyone will think this can pass without a constitutional amendment.

No amendment necessary or no, amendment necessary?

The proposition with House Bill 86 is that a law amending the Georgia Lottery statutes could enable the lottery to offer sports betting without a need to amend the Constitution, a task which is far more onerous than simply passing a bill.

Section II Paragraph VIII of the Georgia Constitution states:

Except as herein specifically provided in this Paragraph VIII, all lotteries, and the sale of lottery tickets, and all forms of pari-mutuel betting and casino gambling are hereby prohibited….

Amongst the exceptions listed are for the General Assembly to be able to provide for nonprofit bingo games, non-profit raffles, and more importantly for the present discussion, the General Assembly to “provide for the operation and regulation of a lottery or lotteries by or on behalf of the state.”

Is Georgia sports betting a done deal?

Hardly: like other states around the country, there appears to be some disagreement as to whether the language of the Georgia Constitution would permit sports betting without an amendment. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, legislature lawyers have recommended pursuing a constitutional amendment for sports betting.

The constitutional amendment route is a taller task for legislators but might head off litigation from groups challenging a new law. Given the absence of gambling beyond the lotteries in Georgia, there is a chance that a new law would be challenged by some opposition groups.

There have been a number of efforts over the last few years to expand gambling, including bringing horse racing and casinos to Georgia, but those have stalled out with the emergence of vocal opposition groups.

What to make of this?

There should be very cautious optimism. Georgia is something of a white whale for gambling expansion proponents.

A state with nothing beyond a lottery would be a huge accomplishment for gaming advocates, but there are some very real hurdles still to overcome, including questions about whether this can even be done without a constitutional amendment.

Many states around the country that have faced questions about whether a constitutional amendment is necessary have seen their efforts stall out. States where sports betting expansion is going to be “easy” have largely already capitalized on their head start.

Even if a constitutional amendment is ultimately not necessary, it would seem as though the groups who have defeated gambling expansion in the past in the Peach State may seek to do so again.

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John Holden

John Holden J.D. / Ph.D. is an academic. His research focuses on policy issues surrounding sports corruption.

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