The Jolt: A ‘catastrophe’ avoided? Georgia Senate to vote on hate-crimes bill today

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The rumors about a new hate-crimes compromise started percolating around the Capitol at lunchtime on Monday, but even the most optimistic negotiators sounded downright skeptical.

Right around then, state Rep. Calvin Smyre, who has been through his share of complex legislative discussions, sounded doubtful that a bipartisan agreement could be struck.

“It’ll be a catastrophe if Georgia can’t get this done,” the veteran Democratic legislator told one of your Insiders. “The slogan that Georgia is the No. 1 place in the nation to do business? Well, it can’t be said anymore if this fails.”

A few hours later, he and other Democrats were in a much sunnier mood. For the second time in a span of a few days, Senate Republicans withdrew from their position on the hate-crimes measure, though this time it was to pick up Democratic supporters rather than woo more conservatives.

Already, Senate Republicans scrapped Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's broader proposal to make a hate crime a standalone criminal penalty that would include "culture" and "exercise of religious belief" as protected classes, along with gender, race, sexual orientation, age and other categories.

And now they were reversing on a second scaled-back proposal, meant to win over wavering Republicans, that gave special protections for police officers and other first-responders. From our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu:

State Sen. Bill Cowsert, the Athens Republican who authored the change last week, announced the reversal during a Senate Rules Committee hearing late Monday. 

"We're very hopeful that the House will be satisfied that these are changes that have brought bipartisan support and did not in any way undermine the initial purposes," he said. 

… Cowsert's amendments also changed the sentencing guidelines for someone who is convicted of a hate crime. If his version of the bill passes, someone convicted of a hate crime would face an additional six to 12 months for a misdemeanor or at least two years for a felony. They would also face a fine of up to $5,000. 

We’re told that Cowsert, Duncan and Democratic state Sen. Harold Jones struck the compromise, which also earned the support of the Georgia NAACP and other key advocacy groups.

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, speaks Monday, the first day back at the Capitol for the Georgia General Assembly to restart the session it suspended in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Among the Legislature’s tasks is passage of a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
State Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, speaks Monday, the first day back at the Capitol for the Georgia General Assembly to restart the session it suspended in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Among the Legislature’s tasks is passage of a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The bill is set to arrive at a floor vote in the Georgia Senate later today, and if it passes, would get a final vote in the Georgia House later this week. House Speaker David Ralston, whose chamber passed a similar measure last year, is said to be cautiously optimistic.

Though it appears to have solid Republican support, watch the vote totals for a potential new Republican fault line. Some are seething at the compromise, and one senior GOP official texted that Duncan had “caved.”

Several Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. Bill Heath of Bremen and Tyler Harper of Ocilla, seem likely to vote “no” over concerns the law is too easily abused by judges and prosecutors and, they say, unnecessary.

And vote-counters will be anxiously watching several other Republicans, including state Sen. John Albers of Roswell and Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton, who has publicly wrestled over the measure.

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ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 17:  Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks onstage during the City of Hope - Sylvia Rhone Spirit Of Life Kickoff Breakfast at St. Regis Buckhead on June 17, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for City Of Hope)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 17: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks onstage during the City of Hope - Sylvia Rhone Spirit Of Life Kickoff Breakfast at St. Regis Buckhead on June 17, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for City Of Hope)

Credit: Marcus Ingram

Credit: Marcus Ingram

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has added another role to her portfolio. As she's being vetted as a potential Joe Biden running-mate, she is also chairing a 15-person Platform Drafting Committee for the Democratic National Convention.

“Crafting our party platform is important work, and I’m confident that the members of this committee will engage Americans in a substantive dialogue of ideas and solutions,” said DNC chair Tom Perez.

Bottoms said she's looking forward to “implementing what will be without a doubt the most progressive platform in our party’s history” when Biden is elected.

The group includes U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois - another potential Biden pick - and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Several people with close ties to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - former Biden rivals - are also on the panel.

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Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., was one of only three Democratic House members to receive political contributions from the NRA during the last election cycle, reflecting the NRA’s diminishing support of Democrats. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., was one of only three Democratic House members to receive political contributions from the NRA during the last election cycle, reflecting the NRA’s diminishing support of Democrats. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop says many of his constituents have complained about problems navigating the state's unemployment system, causing him to write a letter to state Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

The issues include long delays in receiving benefits, problems accessing the website to sign up and lack of response when complaints are lodged, Bishop wrote. He asked the state to provide him with a response about how it is addressing these “serious concerns.”

“We are in a critical moment in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bishop wrote. “It is vital that efforts are undertaken to address this breakdown so that the Georgia Department of Labor can effectively serve the citizens of our state.”

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Brenda Jones, a long-time spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. John Lewis, has co-authored a series of biographies about several of the Democratic Party's highest-profile women.

Titled "Queens of the Resistance," the four-book series covers the life and political careers of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The books go on sale later this month.

Previously, Jones collaborated with Lewis on the award-winning book, "Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change." She retired from his office last year but remains a close confidant.

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The Georgia Urban Agriculture Council warned Georgia senators that a push to eliminate a sales tax exemption for turfgrass sold directly from state farms could hobble the industry and amount to a 6-8% tax increase on sod sales.

The letter, sent to every senator, said the tax break has been in place since the late 1990s and is “good for Georgia’s economy and job opportunities all across the state.”

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U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler's latest attack on fellow Republican Doug Collins, one of her November rivals, is a digital ad that questions why he cast a vote "against protecting your Second Amendment rights just because it was politically correct."

At issue is a 2010 subcommittee vote when Collins was in the Georgia House.

He joined several other Republicans in voting for an amendment proposed by Stacey Abrams that, according to a gun rights advocate chronicling the meeting, would have made it a criminal offense to carry a firearm at private elementary and secondary schools.

A Collins spokesman touted the congressman's A+ rating with the National Rifle Association and said that he "unlike Kelly Loeffler, knows which end of a gun goes boom." He pointed to a campaign website that called Loeffler a "fake" gun supporter.

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