Georgia Voters Could Face Casino Ballot Referendum in November, as House Committee Advances Resolution

Posted on: June 23, 2020, 11:10h. 

Last updated on: July 6, 2020, 09:07h.

The most pressing decision facing Georgia voters come November will be whether to reelect President Donald Trump, or go with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But another critical issue could also require their attention.

Georgia casino sports betting
Owners of the Atlanta Motor Speedway want to overhaul the venue into a casino resort destination. Georgia voters could allow the project to inch towards the starting line in November. (Image: NBC Atlanta)

Georgia is one of only five states that does not have commercial or tribal casinos, parimutuel wagering, or sports betting. The others are Hawaii, South Carolina, Utah, and Vermont.

But in a few months, Georgians could decide if the Peach State’s long prohibition on nearly all forms of gambling – the state lottery being the exception – should be lifted.

On Monday, the Georgia House Regulated Industries Committee voted 13-3 in favor of Senate Resolution 841. The measure would grant Georgia residents the power to amend their state constitution to allow parimutuel wagering, casino gambling, and sports betting if it receives a two-thirds majority vote in each legislative chamber.

If the November ballot question receives majority support from voters, each county would later need to hold another local referendum to determine whether area residents wish to allow such gambling in their communities.

Gambling for the Economy

State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), who introduced SR841 into the House chamber, says the state desperately needs capital investments to generate new tax revenue streams.

There’s certainly interest. Last October, owners of the Atlanta Motor Speedway said they’d be ready to invest $1 billion to transform the racetrack into a casino resort, with hotels, a convention center, theme park, and private residences.

“We need investments in the state of Georgia,” Stephens declared.

Whether you’re for or against the bill [SR841], allow the people to vote,” the Republican added. “It can’t come to your backyard until your backyard wants it.”

The House Regulated Industries vote comes as a gambling bill that would legalize mobile sports betting is making progress. Senate Bill 403 is set to go before the full Senate this week.

Introduced by Sen. Burt Jones (R-Jackson), SB403 would charge mobile sportsbook operators a $900,000 annual fee, and tax sports betting revenue at 20 percent. Jones says mobile sports betting could generate $60 million in new yearly tax money for the state.

Mobile sports betting would be regulated by the Georgia Lottery. Jones says a legislative counsel has advised him that authorizing mobile sports betting doesn’t require a constitutional ballot referendum because it would essentially become another lottery game.

Opposition Aplenty

The resolution and sports betting bill both face long odds. The Georgia Legislature is in its final week for the 2020 session, and the state has long been anti-gambling.

Pew Research ranks Georgia No. 8 as the most religious state. The research firm found that 66 percent of all Georgians consider themselves “highly religious,” and 84 percent “say they believe in God with absolute certainty.”

For decades, state lawmakers have been apprehensive in supporting gambling initiatives, which typically tend to go against the values of their constituents.

Jones said he would prefer “the citizens have a say” in legalizing sports betting, “but two-thirds of the legislature has never allowed that to happen.” His bill only needs a simple majority in the General Assembly to go to Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) desk.

Kemp opposes gambling but says he will not stand in the way of bills that have bipartisan support.