Sports betting bill passes through senate, Georgians could vote on issue at polls in November

Sports betting bill gets through Georgia senate with support from Savannah Sen. Derek Mallow

History tells us it’s an underdog, but Senate Bill 386 could finally be the upset winner long awaited by those wanting to see sports betting legalized in the state of Georgia. On Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the capitol building in Atlanta, SB 386 was passed through the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Tourism (SCEDT) by a vote of 8-2.

It would legalize online and retail sports betting, with some restrictions, in the state of Georgia. For more than a decade, the Georgia General Assembly (GGA) has debated the issue, oftentimes weighing publicly the morality of gambling versus its potential monetary benefits.

On Thursday, Feb. 1, SB 386 went to the senate floor for debate, amendments and voting. It was approved by a vote of 35-15, with one amendment adding that a voter-approved constitutional amendment be part of the process.
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State senators vote on SB 386 on Thursday in Atlanta.

Now, the bill "crosses over" to begin its road through the House of Representatives and March 28 is the final day for bills to be sent to the Governor's desk for final approval. If voters approve an amendment to the state's constitution to specifically legalize sports betting, lawmakers will then need to pass a second bill ahead of a ballot referendum for a constitutional amendment.

That second bill would need a two-thirds majority vote in both the Senate and the House to pass. It would require 37 votes to get through – two more "yea" votes than were cast on Thursday.

Senator Derek Mallow is a democrat from Savannah representing the second district. He is a 2007 graduate of Jenkins High School, and a co-sponsor of SB 386. He was one of the eight to vote it through committee on Tuesday with Mike Hodges of Brunswick and Sam Watson of Moultrie casting the two dissenting votes.

Mallow recently spoke with Connect Savannah about his reasons for supporting the bill, what it could mean for Georgia and Chatham County residents, and why he resents "the morality piece" of arguments from lobbyists against the bill. Mike Griffin, one of those lobbying against legalized sports betting on behalf of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, also spoke with Connect last week.

"This is money driven," said Griffin, a preacher from Hartwell. "This is about money, this is about greed, and this is about the exploitation of the people for the money. I think that once people begin to realize the detriments of sports betting – that they are greater than the benefits – they're not going to be for it. There's not a verse of scripture that says thou shall not gamble. It's just not there. But there are principles regarding the use of your money."

Mallow said religion shouldn't be used as a reason against this bill.
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Sen. Derek Mallow (D-2nd District) of Savannah

"I believe that scripture tells us there should be a separation of church and state," Mallow said. "And if someone wonders, you know, how can you sleep at night knowing that you're doing this? Well, I find solace in Proverbs chapter 13, verse 22: A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the wealth of a sinner is stored up for the righteous."

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain) and Mallow are two of the five democrats on the bill with 12 sponsors. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a republican, expressed support for the bill after it was first introduced on Jan. 24. Savannah republican senator Ben Watson (first district) was one of the eight "yea" votes in the SCEDT hearing Tuesday morning.

"Our step today is only the first one," Butler said on the senate floor Thursday. "But it is an important one for the state of Georgia."

At least 38 states have legalized sports betting in some form since 2018, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a 1992 federal law banning commercial sports betting. In November of 1992, Georgians voted to approve the Georgia Lottery with taxes generated going to fund the HOPE scholarship.

Since 1960, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board has passed 22 resolutions against the legalization of sports betting in Georgia, said Griffin.

"People say, 'Well, they're already doing it.’ But if you had a fire in your house, would you put gas or water on it? We have a fire burning in Georgia," Griffin said. "We definitely have a fire burning when it comes to gambling and if you legalize it, it's going to make whatever problems exist even worse."

"This one is different because the minority leader is on this bill. I am on this bill," Mallow said. "And I hope the people in Savannah have great confidence in knowing that I don't sign legislation that will hurt my community or my constituents. And when I sign onto a bill, I do so with the understanding of what that bill's going to do. Myself, Leader Butler, and our caucus leadership, we have all been engaged in the negotiations, getting commitments that this will fully fund Pre-K."

click to enlarge Sports betting bill passes through senate, Georgians could vote on issue at polls in November
Sen. Derek Mallow (D-2nd District) of Savannah

Lawmakers are encouraged by the possibility of attracting support for legalized sports betting by drawing attention to the potential of raising millions of dollars for the HOPE collegiate scholarship and Pre-K programs.

"What I would say about the morality piece of this is that [Griffin] mentioned all the congregations that he had support from," said Mallow. "All the churches. Has any member of those congregations had their child refuse HOPE scholarship money? If they haven’t refused money from the HOPE scholarship, then they should not be the moral police to say the gambling in the lottery is bad and still accept money for a scholarship that is derived from that. That question remains for those who say we don't need to support the lottery or any form of gambling. That's a declaration that they don't support the HOPE Scholarship."

"We've been in this General Assembly since Zell Miller passed the lottery and there has not been one bill to cancel the HOPE scholarship. So, if that's the case, if they feel so passionately about it, they need to put a bill out to cancel the lottery and to cancel the HOPE Scholarship."

Allocated proceeds (20 percent tax rate on the Adjusted Gross Income) from SB 386 would contribute to student financial aid programs, including HOPE college scholarships and Pre-K programs.

"The state wants to somehow sanctify it because it's going to help the children," Griffin said.

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Mike Griffin

"Well, are you going to legalize recreational marijuana because it helps the children? Are you going to legalize prostitution because it helps the children? You’re just making a bad situation worse, and that’s always true when you try to legalize moral vices like that."

For Mallow, the funding of Pre-K is a primary reason the bill has his support. Some estimates suggest $100-$120 million of revenue could annually be raised through the taxation of sports betting.

"I think the people in the second senatorial district have elected me to be their voice and to be their leader. As a leader, I've got to find solutions to our problems. And this is one solution I found," Mallow said.

"We have a literacy problem in Chatham County and literacy issues aren’t addressed when kids are sitting at home because mom, dad, grandfather, uncle or aunt can’t afford Pre-K. We need to get these kids into Pre-K because the earlier a child starts to read, the better prepared they are. If you want to see crime go down, you want to see homelessness prevented, you want to see better outcomes in school, you want to see better neighborhoods…Make the kids learn to read. Pre-K is where that begins."

The bill comes with 16 available licenses for companies, franchises or entities to be authorized to accept sports bets. One license goes to the Georgia Lottery and seven are "open" licenses available for $100,000 application fees and an annual fee of $1 million. The remaining eight licenses are "tethered" to the five professional sports franchises in the state – Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United and Atlanta Dream – as well as the Augusta National Golf Club, the PGA Tour and NASCAR.

Other stipulations of the bill regulate the who and what of betting. Bettors must be 21 or older and they cannot use a credit card to place bets. Sports that are illegal to gamble on, in any manner, include any event where the majority of participants are under the age of 18 and the Special Olympics.

The Georgia House of Representatives meets next for Legislation Day 15 on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

Follow the Georgia General Assembly's moves and learn more on the daily schedule by visiting the GGA website.

Travis Jaudon

Travis Jaudon is a general assignment reporter for Connect Savannah. He is a Savannah native and host of Hot Grits Podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram, @JaudonSports. [email protected]

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