Georgia House Speaker Optimistic That Voters Will Get to Decide on Gambling Expansion in 2022

  • House Speaker David Ralston said there’s “an appetite” to get something done
  • A potential referendum would simply ask Georgians if they want to expand gambling
  • Bills to legalize casinos have been introduced in the past, but got nowhere
  • Two sports betting bills made headway in 2021, but politics got in the way
baskets of peaches
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston thinks state residents might get the opportunity this year to decide if they want more gambling options beyond the lottery. [Image:]

Time to let voters be heard?

One of Georgia’s highest-ranking politicians believes this could be the year that state residents get to decide if they want more gambling options. Speaking about gambling expansion, House Speaker David Ralston (R – Blue Ridge) told the media on Thursday: “There is an appetite this session that I haven’t seen before to do something.”

maybe it’s time that we asked the question of Georgians whether they want to expand gaming”

“Maybe it’s time that we asked the question of Georgians whether they want to expand gaming, and if they say yes, then we sit down and decide what form it will take, whether it’s going to be sports betting, whether you do horses or destination resorts,” he added.

Georgia is one of the most limited states in terms of gambling, with the lottery sitting as the lone legal, regulated option.

Ralston’s idea is to put the decision to the voters, but it would only essentially be a “yes or no” question as to whether or not they want to added gambling options beyond the lottery. If voters give the hypothetical referendum the thumbs-up, state lawmakers would then decide where to go from there.

Some concrete plans, but no action

Some state lawmakers have introduced gambling legislation multiple times over the last few years, but nothing made it through Georgia’s short legislative session. There have been several variations, from bills similar to Ralston’s proposal that would allow voters to decide, to more detailed gambling expansion plans.

One such plan would have allowed for two “destination resort” casinos. One would have had to be in a county with at least 900,000 residents and a convention center, and developers would have had to invest at least $2bn into the project. So, an Atlanta-area casino. The other casino would have been in a county with between 250,000 and 900,000 residents.

Another casino plan would have divided the state into five or six regions, with one casino permitted in each and two in the largest, which would have been the Atlanta metropolitan area.

Though no casino bill was ever too much of a threat to get to the governor’s desk, things did get serious enough where gambling companies started lining up to make their pitches. MGM proposed a $1bn facility in Atlanta. Speedway Motorsports, owner of the Atlanta Motor Speedway, partnered with Foxwoods owner Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to develop a $1bn plan to develop a larger entertainment complex, including a casino, at the racetrack.

Sports betting came close in 2021

Most recently, two companion bills regarding sports betting came close to passing both chambers of the Georgia legislature last year. The would have put the decision to the people of the state and were supported, as one might expect, by Georgia’s professional sports teams.

The bills passed the Senate, but stalled out in the House. Naturally, the most conservative Republicans were against gambling expansion, slowing things down, but an unrelated bill ultimately played a hand in killing it. Georgia took center stage in American politics for a while in 2021 when the Republican-controlled legislature passed a voting regulation bill, later signed by Governor Brian Kemp, that is widely seen as restricting voting rights and making it harder for people to vote, particularly people of color. Democrats and civil rights groups opposed it; Major League baseball even pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta.

In protest of the voting regulation bill, House Democrats pulled their support for the sports betting bills and that was that.

the Georgia Lottery generated $1.2bn for education

Tax revenue from sports betting or other gambling expansion would be earmarked primarily for the HOPE Scholarship, which awards partial and full scholarship to students attending in-state colleges and universities. The HOPE Scholarship is funded by the lottery right now, but has become so popular that funds have been running low for years. In 2020, the Georgia Lottery generated $1.2bn for education, including pre-K programs.

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