State representatives, senators remain on the fence about wagering legislation

Local legislators shaky on sports betting legalization

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In 1993, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 took effect. The federal law, sometimes called PASPA or the Bradley Act, made betting on sporting events outright illegal in all but four states.

The Supreme Court of the United States, however, ruled PASPA unconstitutional in May — in effect, opening up the possibility for every state in the nation to legalize sports betting.

One state, Delaware, has already announced plans to offer full-scale sports betting, with some caveats, beginning June 5. Which raises the question — how do Bartow's state-level representatives and senators feel about the prospects of sports wagering becoming a reality in Georgia? 

"I know that this is something that has been considered for quite some time now, even going back to the inception of the HOPE Scholarship program and the creation of the state-funded lottery," said Matthew Gambill, Georgia's District 15 State Representative-elect. "Probably within the past six or seven years, there's been some pretty formidable efforts to try and expand Georgia, as far as parimutuel betting goes … I would think with this Supreme Court decision, it will only fuel an effort by the Legislature to look into this some more."

And that, Gambill said, could become a major factor in the state's gubernatorial race.

"What has kept Georgia from expanding any kind of gambling … has been the governor's desire not to expand any form of gambling," he said. "Depending on how the nominees that we have on either party side weigh in on this could have an impact on how serious the Georgia Legislature looks at this particular issue." 

District 52 State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said he'd likely vote against any legislation eyeing sports betting legalization in Georgia. However, he also said he'd keep an open mind on the matter. 

"I think we will wait and review all of the factors in this — I don't think we know them all just yet," he said. "We've heard from the NFL, who's got some concerns, and others, and we don't want to do anything that would be cannibalizing existing things, like the HOPE Scholarship."

A 2017 Oxford Economics report suggests that under limited availability with a base tax rate, Georgia could generate about $99.5 million in sports betting revenue each year. With widespread availability under a low taxation model, researchers project Georgia's hypothetical sports betting industry could generate more than $1 billion in total economic impacts — including more than 5,700 jobs.

"If you look at tax revenue that goes to state and local coffers to fund critical state services, if you look at employment opportunities and wages that are paid to local residents to support these activities, there's all sorts of things that communities benefit from," said Casey Clark, vice president of strategic communications for the American Gaming Association. "We've estimated that Americans are betting as much as $150 billion on sports right now, so it's not that they're not doing it, they're just not doing it aboveboard. Our opportunity in every state is to really get this right and bring it aboveboard within a framework where there are laws and regulations."

Hufstetler said that any sports betting legislation that would arise in Georgia would likely go through the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries and Utilities. "They would come up with some scenarios and present it to the full senate, and we would go from there," he said.

That committee is currently chaired by District 47 State Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville. 

"People introduce legislation on just about every subject, so I wouldn't be surprised," he said. "One of the ideas that's been floated before is having destination resorts and limiting the number across the state … I would suspect that will be floated back up again next year."

Gambill said he's not exactly a "proponent of gambling," but his position on legalized sports wagering could be swayed depending on the specifics of the legislation that comes before him.

Still, he's apprehensive about the potential consequences of the state legalizing sports betting. 

"I think it has a deleterious social impact, I think that if you really look at the data on what it does to society — it can be problematic," he said. "I've got some friends who are very interested in this issue, as a way to provide additional revenue for the HOPE Scholarship program. I just don't think it's a cure-all for everything we need, as far as government goes."

Regardless of the subject, Ginn said legislators must carefully weigh what the consequences — intended or unintended — of their bills may be. 

"With any type of gambling, be it parimutuel, you pick your activity, most are what I consider a voluntary tax," he said. "One of the things we've got to do is just look at how we handle the people who have addictions … taking money they can't afford into sports betting or gambling and they're hurting their families and children."

Hufstetler also said he has some reservations about the idea.

"We currently get about 25 percent from the [Georgia Lottery for] the HOPE Scholarship, and too often these programs will offer significantly less and really don't have a huge impact on state revenues," he said. "I'm going to be skeptical of that."

He also said the prospects of legal sports betting makes him a little apprehensive about game-fixing. "One of our concerns is that we bring in a factor that could allow people to profit from things through manipulation."

Clark, however, argues that legalizing and regulating sports wagering would create additional safeguards against problem gambling and "fixed" sporting events.

"There are no protections for bettors, athletes or the integrity of the game within an illegal market," he said. "We commit hundreds of millions of dollars every year to responsible gaming programs to ensure that people who need help have access to it, and candidly, we have the most to lose if we get that wrong."

As to how Georgia might roll out regulated sports betting, Clark said he wouldn't be surprised if they imitate Nevada's approach to intrastate mobile gaming.

"What that means is you can bet on sports on an app on your phone within the boundaries of the state," he said. "It's geo-fenced in, you can't bet across borders and the minute your device leaves the state, it no longer works. That has been a really effective model."

Ginn said he's not so sure about that idea. "One of the things I would question [about] that is when you're dealing with FCC rules," he said. 

The rub for states considering sports betting, Clark said, is in making the legalized and regulated wagering market more appetizing to consumers than the illegal one. 

"If you have too high of a tax rate or too high of a buy-in number, then it becomes hard for operators to actually offer sports betting in a way that makes good business sense," he said. "The illegal market is working for consumers, it's just not providing any real benefits or protections."

Hufstetler said he will keep an eye on how other states approach the matter. 

"The good thing about it is having 50 states regulate, it's easy to see what works and what doesn't," he said, "and we can learn from each other."

Although he's still undecided on the subject, Gambill said he does like the sound of sports wagering revenue creating an additional state pot for certain expenditures. 

"Georgia did do a good job in making sure the lottery proceeds remain dedicated to funding the HOPE Scholarship, whereas some of the other states that instituted state-run lottery systems mail out the money to be split up among multiple, different sources," he said. "Having a dedicated source for these potential funds to go to would be something I would be very interested in, and of course, education would be a natural fit."

Ginn has a different opinion.

"The state has a lot of needs and those needs change a little bit over time," he said. "We've always had a need for education, we need money for health care, we need money for transportation … to me, when you restrict the use of proceeds to one particular entity, you've got to look at the long term consequences of that."

If state legislators ever want a consultant to help them iron out their sports wagering policies, Clark said his organization is more than happy to lend the General Assembly some assistance.

"I think the benefits there are very real in terms of the economic benefits, of partnering with gaming companies to offer this form of entertainment to Georgians. And we welcome the opportunity to have that discussion with legislators and others on how we could put together a framework that would be effective," he said. "Our goal is to work with states like Georgia to come up with sensible solutions that might work for Georgians."

As for the odds of Georgia legalizing sports betting in the next legislative session, Ginn said he's going to abstain from speculating.

"I'd be willing to bet there will be legislators in both houses introducing legislation," he said. "Whether it gets through both houses and makes it to the governor's desk is a different story … and since I don't have a crystal ball, I don't want to wager on the outcomes."