Georgia House Committee approved legislation Tuesday that would legalize statewide online sports betting with remote registration.

Rep. Ron Stephens’ HB 86 aims to expand gambling, bypassing the constitutional amendment usually required for such moves. The proposed measure also allows for professional sports franchises or stadiums to associate with operators to offer online sports betting. HB 86 was introduced in January and was scheduled for a hearing last week before it was postponed.

For years supporters have pushed the lawmakers to expand the industry to allow casinos and horse racing. But a 2018 US Supreme Court ruling on PASPA paved the way for the state to legalize sports betting. After years of failed bids to expand regulated gambling through a constitutional amendment, which involves a complex procedure including the requirement of two-thirds support in House and Senate and majority support from voters, Georgia is on the verge of becoming a legalized industry.

Details of the Bill

House Bill 86 would empower the Georgia Lottery Corporation to manage a digital sports betting system for six or more vendors. Adding sports betting to the existing lottery system bypasses the legal requirement for lawmakers and voters to approve a new constitutional amendment. “We believe that the folks should just make it another lottery game,” said Stephens, the prime sponsor of the bill and the chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee.

The proposal sets the tax rate at 16% while allowing a legal wager for anyone age 21 or above. The application fee for an operator is set at $50,000, with a renewable annual fee of $900,000. In addition, the operators would also be subject to a 14% tax on their adjusted gross income, which would reimburse into educational programs such as HOPE Scholarships. According to Stephens, the Georgia sports betting industry could add $40 million into the existing mechanism to fund the scholarship.

House Tourism and Economic Development members voted 20-6 to approve the bill. It was not unexpected since the bill’s prime mover, Rep. Ron Stephens, heads the committee. HB 86 is also supported by the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, a coalition of four professional franchises – the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Braves, Atlanta United, and Atlanta Hawks. Additionally, influential Republicans, including House Speaker David Ralston, have indicated support for the proposal.

Georgia, Second Online-only State

The bill does not appear to allow for any land-based facilities, making Georgia the second state to pass such a law. Earlier in 2019, Tennessee regulated online betting only, and though it appeared that Virginia was on its way to following suit in 2020, the law there now approves five brick-and-mortar casinos with sportsbooks.

Like Tennessee and Virginia, Georgia is not known for gaming culture. As for now, gambling is outlawed in the Peach State, except the lottery. If Georgia regulates the industry this year, it will join neighboring Tennessee and North Carolina in the region with legal betting. Though Alabama and Florida are on the way to consider sports betting bills, it seems difficult for the two to advance towards anything conclusively during this session.

Lawmakers to Allay Some Concerns

Everything seemed going smoothly on Tuesday’s meeting until some members raised concerns regarding the addictive nature of gambling, urging stricter safeguards to be put in place. Rep. Miriam Paris, who voted for the bill, said they need to have something in place for those who “get caught up into this trap,” adding that people are really going broke.

Stephens has also introduced legislation, putting a question on an upcoming ballot asking voters to support allowing casinos in Georgia. The legislation also directs sports facilities to post support hotline telephone number for those struggling with gambling addictions. The lottery spends around $400,000 a year on addiction programs.

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