Gaming fail a sure bet again

I am a gambling man, though pretty disciplined in that I only play blackjack and very rarely the lottery as the Powerball and Mega-Millions games approach a prize of $1 billion. Yes, those odds are still horrible, but somebody will eventually win. Blackjack, not all the fancy poker table games, has among the highest odds of potential wins by the gambler, and Lady Luck also often plays more than a small part.

That said, after between 15 and 20 consecutive sessions of the Georgia General Assembly, any expansion of legal gambling in Georgia beyond our very popular lottery is most likely again going down in flames this year. For nearing a decade, in poll after poll and survey after survey, Georgia voters have indicated two things by majorities exceeding 60 percent—potential gaming expansion and the resulting revenues—should be put to ballot questions for voters to decide (some samples as high at 70 percent in favor) and a majority of voters support expanding gambling, with the two most popular options being allowing sports betting and pari-mutuel wagering.

Though an increasingly long shot, gambling did receive actual floor debate this session, and an expansion of the Georgia Lottery, passed the Georgia State Senate. Then State Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-District 41) of Athens, also Senate majority leader, successfully attached an amendment to the bill making the resolution require an amendment to the Georgia Constitution (as was the case with the original lottery amendment).

Senate Bill 386 passed the State Senate on Feb. 1, 2024, by a vote of 35 to 15 (meeting the threshold of a two-thirds majority, as required for any proposed constitutional amendment), and was transmitted to the State House for consideration. Republican and Democratic members of the State Senate supported the measure, and a similar coalition will be required for passage in the State House. Cowsert has long been a supporter of expanding gaming in Georgia, as well as the potential billions in new revenues, but only following the path of the Georgia Lottery’s original passage by constitutional amendment.

Since that time, the Georgia Lottery has funded the HOPE scholarship program and more than 1.8 million HOPE scholars, Georgia Pre-K and major school system technology investments statewide such the GSAMS satellite distance learning network. Judged by many metrics as among the most successful lotteries in the nation, the Georgia Lottery has generated nearly $20 billion in higher education and pre-K funding and has become among the most popular offerings of Georgia state government. That said, the amendment at the time passed by a very narrow margin.

Georgia is surrounded by states with expanded gaming options, and 38 of the 50 states now allow some form of sports betting. Full casino gambling is also now available in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina. South Carolina has a state lottery, and a daily sports fantasy betting league/game option. Tennessee has parimutuel wagering and sports betting, and Tunica, Mississippi – a casino gambling destination – is a short hop from Memphis while a new Hard Rock Casino is under construction in Bristol, Virginia, a city straddling the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia.

Though the proliferation of gambling options has diluted the draw of some regional gambling centers in recent years, that revenue pie continues to grow exponentially, in part due to offshore options and online betting. Metro Atlanta is the only top 10 metropolitan statistical area in the nation without full-table gaming available.

Yet this is an election year in a battleground state for the White House, with most Georgia Democrats hoping to make inroads in the Georgia General Assembly and congressional delegation due to eight of the top 10 most populous counties having moved decidedly in the direction of the Democratic Party since 2016.

To make it to the ballot, SB 386, or some amended version, will need a two-thirds, bipartisan majority in each chamber, followed by Gov. Kemp’s signature. That is a tall order. And then, a simple majority vote by voters would create the enabling infrastructure for the General Assembly to frame out and more fully regulate during the next session.

Kemp has voiced support previously for letting the people decide these gaming questions, but his wagon seems a bit too full to pull across this convoluted version of sports betting. SB 386 has already made the threshold for Crossover Day, but I’ll go 10 to 1 this bill is DOA long before Sine Die on the House side, without some major horse trading.

Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com

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