The General Assembly session came to a close on April 2 with a dramatic debate about the passage of the “heartbeat bill,” which would ban abortions in cases where a fetal heartbeat can be detected. The Reporter asked local legislators about their wins and losses this session, and the culture-war climate of the legislature in the wake of the abortion bill.
Two legislators did not respond: state Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta), who testified in the U.S. Senate against a federal abortion restriction bill amid national attention for her speech against the “heartbeat bill,” and state Rep. Erik Allen (D-Smyrna). State Sen. John Albers replied briefly with some of the legislative wins.
Sen. John Albers (R-Sandy Springs)
Win: Albers’ big win was passing the “Keeping Georgia’s Schools Safe Act” which would address offenses for minors in possession of a firearm; require school safety plans, including performing threat assessments, drills and education prevention and reporting; and provide new coordination between schools and law enforcement. The legislation came out of recommendations from a task force Albers chaired.
Betsy Holland (D-Buckhead)
Win: Bills that increased educational opportunities, including HB 218, which will extend the time students can utilize the HOPE Scholarship to 10 years after graduation and with active military service not counting. Also covered requiring recess in elementary school; more resources for students with dyslexia; and raises for teachers.
Loss: The failure of the hate crimes bill and Medicaid expansion, and passage of Confederate monuments protection bill and the abortion bill.
The mood in the General Assembly: “While many good pieces of legislation involved bipartisan efforts, there were many ‘culture war’ bills that divided the chamber. During the last month of session, we walked past protesters almost every day.” She has hope of working with other newly elected Democrats next time.
Sen. Sally Harrell (D-Dunwoody)
Win: Defeat of the school voucher bill that would have allowed the state to pay for private school tuition. “That surprised me,” she said. “I was surprised how many Republicans [opposed] the bill and stood in solid support of public schools. This was definitely a bipartisan win.”
Loss: Failure to pass Medicaid expansion. The legislature did pass a bill giving Gov. Brian Kemp the authority to study options on Medicaid waivers, which Harrell said is not enough.
The mood in the General Assembly: At the beginning of the session, Harrell said she saw many Republicans wanting to work with Democrats because of the number of seats Democrats flipped. But when Gov. Kemp settled into office and the “heartbeat bill” to essentially ban abortion was introduced, the mood shifted significantly to a much more conservative tone, she said. “The right wing of the Republican Party knows if they can get a bill to the floor, the moderates have to vote for it.”
Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Brookhaven)
Win: Holcomb’s bill requiring police to keep rape kits and evidence gathered from sexual assaults for up to 50 years passed unanimously in the House and Senate. Before, evidence only had to be preserved for 10 years.
Loss: Holcomb introduced several bills to address elections and voting, including bills to allow for hand marked paper ballots, same-day voter registration and the creation of an independent redistricting commission. None of the bills got hearings.
The mood in the General Assembly: The most controversial bill, the “heartbeat bill” that bans abortion, was a curious bill to introduce because Republican majorities were much greater in previous sessions, he said. “If I wanted to be really cynical … I’d say this was nothing but political theater because it will be struck down,” he said.
Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick (R-Sandy Springs)
Win: Kirkpatrick, who had a 30-year healthcare career, said passing several pieces of legislation on that industry was the big success, including certificate-of-need reform, HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, and insurance waivers.
Loss: Kirkpatrick counts her one big loss as the failure of her hot car bill. The legislation would have provided immunity for anyone rescuing an animal from a hot car by breaking a window if they call 911.
The mood in the General Assembly: Kirkpatrick said her job is to review every piece of legislation and do what is best for her constituents, which is why she voted against the abortion restrictions. “I think things like [abortion] are very divisive and tend to polarize people and draw extremes,” she said. “People like me are definitely in jeopardy and I think it’s important we have people who are thoughtful.”
Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs)
Win: McLaurin said his successes were passing a bill he co-sponsored that allows “citizens to use lawsuits to hold the government accountable.”
Loss: McLaurin said the passage of abortion restrictions was the worst loss. He said Georgia is one of the last in the county for maternity mortality rates and he believes the new rules could make it worse.“You would think it would be impossible to take a step back, but we did,” he said.
The mood in the General Assembly: He said he believes divisive social issues remain a focus of Republican leaders because they are afraid of losing control and are trying to please polarized voters.“I feel let down because this legislature doubled down on social issues rather than moving Georgia forward in a more sane direction,” McLaurin said.
Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs)
Win: HB 424, which changed criminal law to add sex trafficking to gang activity definition and loosened the rules on some rape case testimony and investigations; combined with legislation that tightens rules on elder abuse.
Loss: HB 158, which would have allowed people with HIV and AIDS who use Medicaid to get access to the same drugs used by others in the Georgia AIDS Drug Assistance Program. “I definitely think this is needed, because we’re the number state in the country with outbreaks of AIDS.”
The mood in the General Assembly: She attributes the tensions to new state leadership that doesn’t know each other yet, and she believes the abortion bill was unconstitutional. “I’m very hopeful things are going to calm down.”
Rep. Mike Wilensky (D-Dunwoody)
Win: Wilensky passed his first bill to revise the criteria tax assessors use to determine fair market value of real property, which he said will benefit Dunwoody business owners.
Loss: The failure of the hate crimes bill.
The mood in the General Assembly: Wilensky said the bitter state of politics in Washington, D.C., affected the current tone of Georgia’s politics, especially with the passage of the anti-abortion bill.
Rep. Matthew Wilson (D-Brookhaven)
Win: Wilson is one of five openly LGBTQ legislators at the General Assembly and this year introduced a bill to ban conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay or bisexual to heterosexual. The bill got a hearing in the Regulated Industries Committee and Wilson said his intention is to educate legislators on the issue this year with plans for a House vote next year.
Loss: The state approved an overhaul of the DeKalb County ethics code, but Wilson voted against it. He said the bill does not go far enough to give the ethics officer authority to hold county officials accountable.
The mood in the General Assembly: Wilson said he senses a growing divide between the far-right and more moderate Republicans, or, to put it simply, between rural and metro Atlanta Republicans. “The far-right conservatives’ strategy on how to maintain their majority is to dig in and serve up legislation that takes away rights from Georgians they don’t represent,” Wilson said. “Then you saw moderate Republicans fighting to advance legislation on HIV treatment and prevention and on hate crimes. Ultimately voters will decide who will be on the right side of history.”
–John Ruch, Evelyn Andrews and Dyana Bagby