March 3, 2023 7:00am

Power Poll takers want sports betting legalized

But they think it should be left up to voters, not legislators

Photo of Steve Fennessy
Atlanta, GA Correspondent

The continued debate over whether sports betting in Georgia should be legalized exposes a growing fault line among state Republican lawmakers, who remain divided over whether it’s a needed form of revenue or just plain immoral. This couldn’t have been more evident than on Thursday, when the state Senate by a two to one margin rejected a bill that would have provided licenses for three horse race tracks across the state, as well as authorized online sports betting here. The bill, sponsored by Statesboro Republican Billy Hickman (who has an ownership stake in nine racehorses), got shot down in a 37-19 vote, in a chamber where there are three Republicans for every two Democrats.

What gives? Well, on the one hand, the idea of state-sanctioned gambling sure seems anathema in the conservative and religious Deep South. But times are changing, of course. And money has always talked. Hickman argued that if his bill passed, the combined effect of horse racing and online sports betting in Georgia would create 8,500 jobs and generate an economic impact of $1.1 billion. While those numbers may seem pretty pie-in-the-sky, Hickman makes an even more prosaic point in defending his bill, which is this: We already have state-sanctioned gambling. It’s called the Georgia Lottery. So let’s ease up on the sanctimony. In a debate on the floor with Sen. Marty Harbin, a fellow Republican but one opposed to Hickman’s bill, Hickman asked Harbin if his children accepted the HOPE scholarship, which of course is funded by the Georgia lottery. Some of them do, Harbin replied. But Harbin indicated the state should go no further down the road of gambling.

It should be noted that even if horseracing in Georgia remains a dog that won’t hunt, the prospect of online betting here is still very much possible. There are at least two other bills making their way through the Legislature. One, HB 360, would give the Georgia Lottery control over sports betting in the state and allow them to grant 16 sports betting licenses. (Imagine going to a Falcons game and placing a bet.) It’s probably relevant to note here that the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is a fervent supporter of legalizing sports betting here, saying it would fund education, create jobs, and drive even more interest in our sports teams. Even Gov. Brian Kemp has indicated he’s open to the idea.

The other bill, SB 172, would punt the issue to voters. That’s not simply passing the buck. There are compelling legal arguments that any move to authorize gambling in the state would require a constitutional amendment. Which means the voters would have the final say.

In this month’s Power Poll, we wanted to know how you feel about the prospect of legalized sports betting in Georgia.

A majority, though at 58 percent not a whopping one, agreed that it should be legalized, with a quarter of respondents opposed to the idea. (Seventeen percent either haven’t made up their mind or don’t care.)

Interestingly, almost the same percentage of respondents who support legalized sports gambling in Georgia agree that it’s an issue that should be decided not by legislators, but by voters.

So then, what about casinos? Right now the closest casino to Atlanta is in Murphy, North Carolina. (Hello Harrah’s.) One of the Power Poll respondents, Jessie Goree, chair of the Clayton County Board of Education, bemoaned the lack of casinos here, saying that “We lose millions of dollars every year to surrounding states because we won’t consider casinos.” Undoubtedly we do. And, for what it’s worth, Power Poll respondents would rather see casinos in Georgia than horseracing, by an almost two-to-one margin. Still, 36 percent were adamant: The state should stay out of the gambling business altogether.

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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