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Senate approves sports betting constitutional amendment

March 5, 2021 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) — Senators want Georgia’s voters to decide whether they will allow sports betting, passing a constitutional amendment and a bill to allow the practice Friday.

Senate Resolution 135 and Senate Bill 142 would authorize sports betting and let lawmakers split the proceeds among three pots — college scholarships for low income students, expanded high speed internet access and rural health care services.

Senators voted 41-10 for the amendment and 34-17 for the bill, sending them to the House for more debate.

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“A no vote for this bill is allowing the bookies to continue to control sports betting, the bookies, the illegal activity... The yes vote is to allow the people to decide,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican.

The Senate’s approach is different than the House, where House Economic Development and Tourism Committee Chairman Ron Stephens has pushed a bill to legalize sports gambling that the full House has yet to vote on. Stephens, a Savannah Republican, has argued a constitutional amendment is not needed as long as the Georgia Lottery Corp. is put in charge of sports betting.

Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican, rejected that argument in debate.

“This is not currently permitted under our state constitution. Sports betting’s a lottery game? Well if it was, we could have been doing it for years.”

The Senate plan would also not spend all the money on the purposes currently allowed under the 1992 state constitutional amendment that allowed the lottery, which are college scholarships and subsidies for preschool.

“I think we ought to have the legislature have a little latitude to decide what’s important to us,” Cowsert said.

Only those 21 and older could place bets. Gamblers could bet on collegiate sporting events as long as they did not include Georgia colleges under the Senate plan.

The plan calls for the lottery to give at least six licenses to companies that want to offer sports betting in Georgia. After the companies pay out bettors’ winnings, the state would tax the remaining proceeds. The Senate plan would tax bookmakers profits at 16%, while the House plan would tax profits at 20%.

Each operator would have to pay a $100,000-a-year license fee under the Senate plan, while the House wants a $900,000-a-year fee.

Minority participation has been an issue for Democrats in both chambers. The Senate on Friday added an amendment requiring at least one-third of licenses go to minority-owned, veteran-owned and female-owned businesses.

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Mullis said repeatedly that he expects a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences, pledging bipartisan participation. That’s necessary because Republican supporters need Democratic votes to overcome opposition from Republicans who oppose the expansion of gambling on moral grounds.

Atlanta’s four major league professional sports teams back legalization, saying it will help keep fans engaged in games.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.