"The Walking Dead" may have aired its final episode in November, but a different kind of undead still lurks under the Gold Dome. After it appeared dead on Crossover Day, an online sports gambling bill was revived last week in the Georgia General Assembly when it suddenly appeared in a separate bill meant to recognize a local soapbox derby. Meet the “Zombie Bill.”

How does that work? Here’s an explainer:

Q. What is a Zombie Bill?

A. Ordinarily, legislative bills are subject to both House and Senate consideration, either before or after Crossover Day, the deadline for a bill to pass out of its legislative chamber to the other one. This year, March 6 was the deadline day for a bill to get enough “yes” votes to pass over to the other chamber. Bills that fail to get a chamber vote or get a “no” majority vote generally are considered dead for the rest of the session. 

Yet, there’s a giant-sized loophole that allows lawmakers to resurrect dead bills—the Zombie Bill. Since lawmakers are legally allowed to substitute language in bills after Crossover Day, as long as the new language relates to the same Georgia code section, they can graft text from a deceased bill onto a live one. 

The zombie version of the online sports gambling bill is a particularly brazen attempt at reviving a bill. The state Senate voted against one proposal that legalized online betting on sports, and allowed horse race tracks, and another online betting proposal that involved an amendment to the Georgia constitution. In the other chamber, House Bill 380, the “Georgia Lottery Game of Sports Betting Act,” never came to a vote before the full House.

But then came the hijacking of House Bill 237, which was intended to designate the annual Southeast Soap Box Derby in Lyons, Georgia as the state’s official soap box derby. It passed the House by a unanimous vote, but then that tiny two-page bill grew by 45 pages after the online sports gambling language got added. 

On March 16, a Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee panel voted 8-1 to move forward with the brand new HB237.

Q. How is that legal?

A. The switcheroo takes advantage of a law that allows lawmakers to add or substitute language in a bill. Technically, the provisions of one bill can be incorporated into another if both fall under the same Georgia code section. The reason that the soapbox racing bill was used is because it also involves sporting competitions.

Zombie bills are not a new innovation in Georgia lawmaking, but they’re considered something of a dirty trick—which is why you won’t find mention of them on the state’s website on how a bill can become a law.

Q. Aren’t zombie bills undemocratic?

A. That’s certainly what some say about Zombie Bills.

“[Zombie Bills] are not illegal, but it is against the spirit and principles of a democratic majority when you take a bill that is defeated and bring it back under a different bill for another try,” said Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University.

Many lawmakers themselves wince when the zombie tactic is used. In this particular case, Sen. Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton) told his legislative colleagues that it would backfire. “When you hijack a soapbox derby and put sports betting on the back of it, every person that was on the fence in the state of Georgia has just picked a side of the fence,” said Dugan.

Rep. Leesa Hagan (R-Lyons), who sponsored the Lyons derby recognition, asked to have that portion struck from the measure after the switcheroo, saying: “I don’t want my soap box derby to be associated with sports betting.” (Ironically, if sports gambling passes, Georgians would be allowed to bet on soapbox racing.) 

Q. Now what?

A. The newly soapbox derby-free substitute bill, HB237, was read in the Senate for the second time on Monday. After a third reading, the bill finally will go to floor debate and then the full chamber will take vote. The bill has until Day 40 of the session—March 29—to pass the Senate.

Because the online sports gambling portion of the bill is new, it must go back to the House for approval. Both chambers must agree on the same version of the bill for it to get sent to the governor to sign into law.


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To watch online: Go to legis.ga.gov and look for the links under “Upcoming Events.”

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