ATLANTA — Advocates for bringing legalized gambling to Georgia will be back under the Gold Dome next month, pitching the financial benefits of casinos, horse racing and sports betting together and separately.

But a betting person might give legislation authorizing online sports betting in the Peach State the best odds to advance. One reason is supporters want proceeds to boost the existing HOPE scholarship program currently funded by the Georgia Lottery.

“It’s the easiest one to pass,” said Georgia Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee. “It clearly does not require a constitutional amendment. … It’s just a matter of us giving the [Georgia] Lottery Commission direction and authority they already have.”

Efforts going back the better part of a decade to legalize casino gambling and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in Georgia have been unable to muster the two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate required to approve constitutional amendments and put them on the statewide ballot.

Supporters say sports betting, on the other hand, would only require simple majorities to get through the two legislative chambers because it could be accomplished simply by amending the law that created the Georgia Lottery during the 1990s.

Sports betting also enjoys the advantages of being a relative newcomer to the debate, having been taken up in the General Assembly for the first time during this year’s session. Lawmakers haven’t had time to grow tired of talking about it.

Sports betting has the backing of Atlanta’s four professional sports teams — the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Atlanta United — which formed a coalition last winter to lobby on the legislation’s behalf.

The teams are counting on sports betting as a way to generate more fan interest, particularly at a time when they have had to shorten seasons and limit attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Increasingly, the cellphone is the primary means of entertainment for younger fans,” said Billy Linville, spokesman for the Georgia Professional Sports Alliance. “[The teams] have to engage them or they’ll go elsewhere.”

Some new ammunition the sports alliance will bring to the 2021 debate is the revenue numbers sports betting is generating in the nearly two dozen states where it’s legal.

In Tennessee, online sports betting produced $131.4 million in wagering last month — an average of more than $4 million per day — after legislation legalizing sports betting took effect Nov. 1.

In 2019, the first full year of sports betting in New Jersey generated $4.55 billion in wagering, with more than $3.8 billion bet online.

Legislation backed by the sports alliance to be introduced into the General Assembly this winter will call for dedicating 20% of the proceeds from sports betting in Georgia to the HOPE Scholarships program.

The lottery-funded HOPE program covered the full tuition costs of eligible Georgia high-school students until 2011, when then-Gov. Nathan Deal pushed a cut in benefits through the General Assembly to keep the program solvent amid rising student enrollment and the increasing costs of tuition.

“We’ve got the COAM [Coin-Operated Amusement] Machines and the lottery drawings producing more than $4 billion [a year] in revenue, and it’s not able to completely fund the HOPE scholarship anymore,” said state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who has been the legislature’s leading champion of horse racing. “We’re going to have to find different revenue sources.”

Other lawmakers are advocating other uses for the state’s share of legalized gambling proceeds.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee said he’d like to put the revenue generated by casinos in Georgia toward “the No. 1 hole in the [state] budget: health care.”

House Democrats have expressed an interest in setting aside a portion of the state’s share of gambling proceeds for low-income families that can’t afford to cover the funding gap the 2011 cuts to the HOPE Scholarship opened up in the program, or for a new scholarship program to help young Georgians pay off their student loans.

Besides the financial argument, supporters of legalized gambling also argue that illegal gambling is generating billions of dollars in Georgia without the state seeing any benefit.

“All we’re going to do is capture the tax,” Stephens said.

“It’s time to bring it out of the darkness and into the light,” Linville added.

But Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, said competition for Georgians’ limited entertainment dollars from legalized sports betting, casinos or horse racing could hurt the lottery program’s revenues.

Lawmakers also should consider how casinos, racetracks and/or online sports betting available at the fingertips might affect problem gamblers and their families, he said.

“We need to make certain we educate the gamblers what the risks are … and do something to make sure they don’t hurt themselves,” Cowsert said.

The 2021 version of the legalized gambling debate should kick off early. Backers of all three options — sports betting, casinos and horse racing — say they plan to pre-file legislation during the first week of January. The 2021 session begins Jan. 11.

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