Norfolk Southern chief executive Jim Squires.
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Jolt: A different ‘religious liberty’ approach from Georgia’s newest Fortune 500 firm 

When General Electric announced two years ago it picked Atlanta as the home of its new digital division, the corporate giant’s top tech executive was unequivocal: Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of a “religious liberty” measure paved the way for the move.

Now in his final month as governor, Deal on Wednesday celebrated another Fortune 500 firm’s decision to plant roots in Atlanta. There was much rejoicing about the kumbaya alliance between state and city leaders that helped land Norfolk Southern’s $575 million new headquarters.

But the debate over “religious liberty” legislation has only heated up. Gov.-elect Brian Kemp pledged to support a version of the bill signed by Bill Clinton. And amid threats of business boycotts, it seemed natural to quiz Atlanta’s newest corporate denizen for its take on the debate.

Atlanta Magazine’s Thomas Wheatley did just that, asking Norfolk Southern chief executive Jim Squires his take on Kemp’s support for the bill, which supporters say is designed to offer more legal protection for opponents of same-sex marriage and critics contend amounts to legalized discrimination.

“We’re in the freight railroad business, freight transportation business. That’s what we do,” said Squires. “Atlanta has been the center of our operations for years, and we’re looking forward to moving our headquarters here. We’re bringing many well-paid employees to the state of Georgia.”

That textbook non-answer left reporters scratching their heads at the dodge. But it also highlighted the path some corporate leaders have long embraced: Steer clear of debate over social issues.

Other firms, for sure, will take different approaches. Amazon was said to be furious with Georgia’s controversial debate over adoption legislation. And a long list of corporations threatened to bolt the state in 2016 if religious liberty measures passed. 

Then again, it may all be a moot point. House Speaker David Ralston, whose support is necessary for any significant legislation, said he’s got no appetite for a revival of the “religious liberty” debate.

***

The latest numbers are in for Obamacare signups, and the state continues to lag behind the pace it set last year. 

Our AJC colleague Ariel Hart reports that 233,584 people in Georgia have signed up for a 2019 health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act through last weekend. That’s compared to 246,270 at around the same time last year. 

There is less than one week to go and the open enrollment is slated to close Dec. 15. Last year 481,000 Georgians enrolled overall.

Here’s more from Hart:

The decline comes amid competing accusations over the Trump administration’s management of ACA enrollment and potential flaws in the program. 

In this week’s news, an internet sleuthing project at the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation found that in the middle of open enrollment last month, the administration removed information on how to help Latinos to sign up and on smoothing the way to apply by telephone. 

We’ve asked the administration its reasoning and will report if we hear back.

***

Blueberries and food stamps. Those were some of the reasons cited by the three Georgia Republicans who voted against the $867 billion, twice-a-decade farm bill, which the House sent to President Donald Trump’s desk on Wednesday.

Pooler Republican Buddy Carter was unhappy that the compromise legislation omitted money for the state’s blueberry farmers who were hit by a crop-crushing freeze in late 2017. “It simply does not support Georgia growers,” the two-term lawmaker said.

U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, cited a lack of changes to the food stamp program, as did House Freedom Caucus member Jody Hice, R-Monroe.

“If you’re an able-bodied adult, you should have to work to receive taxpayer money,” said Hice, who said he also wanted to see more of an emphasis on forest-thinning projects and the legislative reversal of an Obama-era clean water rule.

***

The more contentious House vote on Wednesday ended up being a procedural vote for the farm bill.

That’s because GOP leaders included language blocking a vote on U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war.

Five Democrats, including David Scott of Atlanta, joined with Republicans in support of the blocking language, saving the GOP leaders from an embarrassing defeat on the House floor, the Huffington Post reported:

The rule ― which set up consideration for the farm bill ― waived a War Powers Resolution–based measure that could have given Democrats a floor vote on ending U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition blamed for thousands of deaths and widespread starvation in Yemen.

GOP leadership sneaked the Yemen provision into the farm bill rule on Tuesday night, enraging many Democrats and some Republicans critical of U.S. support for the Saudis. It appeared to be a pre-emptive move to protect the Trump administration’s Yemen policy...

A spokeswoman for Scott did not return a request for comment.

Also on Wednesday, Georgia GOP senators David Perdue and Johnny Isakson voted to halt a resolution ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen. The measure ultimately advanced 60-39.

***

A few scattered rumors have President Donald Trump considering former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as chief of staff. Elaina Plott of The Atlantic reports that’s not going to happen, and others close to Gingrich dismiss the suggestion.

***

Republican uber-strategist Karl Rove writes in the Wall Street Journal that Stacey Abrams did herself long-term damage by refusing to concede.

From his op-ed:

“Dam­ag­ing the state’s rep­u­ta­tion won’t help her win fu­ture races, no mat­ter how much she says she loves Geor­gia and wants to serve it. Some­times you should exit grace­fully.”

***

As we told you earlier this week, Brian Kemp and his wife Marty will be in Washington today for a pair of high-level meetings. 

The governor-elect has afternoon plans at the White House, where he’s scheduled to huddle with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and a dozen of his newly-elected counterparts.

Marty, meanwhile, will be on Capitol Hill meeting with Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue. 

***

Never miss a minute of what’s happening in Georgia Politics. Subscribe to PoliticallyGeorgia.com

 

X