Former House member Dan Ponder, who was a pivotal figure in a 2000 attempt to pass a hate crime bill, which was later declared unconstitutional. Ponder stood in the gallery to be recognized during debate over HB 486, a bill to reestablish crimes of preducice in Georgia. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The Jolt: House GOP members balk at votes on hate crime, ‘heartbeat’ bills

Several days ago, we picked up signs of change coming to the state Capitol, and wondered whether they would hold.

Some did, some didn’t. But in the late hours of Crossover Day, one theme worrisome for the GOP did emerge. Suburban Republicans, particularly in the House, found themselves ducking some hard votes that could put them at odds with their constituents. To review:

-- Senate Bill 150, a measure to bar gun ownership among those convicted of family violence, passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It failed to make it to the floor on Thursday, and so is dead for the session.

-- SB 221, the session’s “religious liberty” measure, was withdrawn by author Marty Harbin of Tyrone. Instead, hate crime legislation sponsored by Rep. Chuck Efstration of Dacula, passed the House on a 96 to 64 votes. HB 426 would heap extra penalties on crimes committed out of prejudice or bias, based on race, color, religion or – and this is important -- sexual orientation.

This is the first time either chamber in the Legislature has recognized sexual orientation as a protected class of citizenry in more than a decade. It’s the first time hate crimes legislation has been approved by the chamber since 2000. That measure was declared unconstitutionally vague in 2004.

Watching from the gallery was Dan Ponder Jr. of Donalsonville, Ga. Nineteen years ago, Ponder was a retiring GOP lawmaker and that hate crimes bill was on the ropes. Ponder gave a wrenching speech on tolerance that saved it. Efstration and several other members of the House made note of his presence.

-- On Wednesday, we reported that two “heartbeat bills” – one in the House and one in the Senate – were being sidelined, while preference was being given to anti-abortion legislation backed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Under Kemp’s bill, a total ban on abortion in Georgia would be triggered if and when the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. In the 24 hours that followed, Kemp backed down and expressed support for HB 481, a measure sponsored by state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, that would ban all abortions once a heartbeat is detected in a fetus, at about six weeks.

In effect, it would ban all abortions in Georgia, and attempt to give to fetuses with a heart beat the full legal status of human beings. A court challenge is all but certain should it pass into law.

HB 481 passed 93 to 73, an exceedingly close vote compared to past votes. Much drama preceded what was the last major debate of the evening. Several House Democrats briefly walked out as debate began. State Rep. Park Cannon, D-Atlanta, was ruled out of order by House Speaker David Ralston when she attempted to call out, by name, House Republicans who had passed the bill out of committee.

State Rep. Renitta Shannon had her microphone cut off when she exceeded her allotted time at the well, delivering what appeared to be a treatise on the impact of anti-abortion laws in developing nations.

But if you wanted to watch Georgia politics last night, you simply had to pay attention to the electronic voting board in the House and note whose votes weren’t being cast.

» See how Georgia state representatives voted on the ‘heartbeat bill’

» Live: Use AJC tracker to follow Georgia bills

» Photos: Crossover Day at the Georgia Legislature

Eleven House members either sought to be excused from voting on HB 481, the “heartbeat” bill, or didn’t vote. Eight were Republicans.

Among the excused: Dave Belton of Buckhead, Ga.; Brett Harrell of Snellville; Matt Hatchett of Dublin, the House caucus chairman; Chuck Martin of Alpharetta: Sharon Cooper of Marietta; and Matt Dubnik of Gainesville.

Votes not recorded for Ron Stephens of Savannah and Ed Rynders of Albany.

Republicans voting no: Butch Parrish of Swainsboro; and Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs.

There were geographic exceptions, but a number of legislators from north metro Atlanta. (One Democrat crossed party lines to vote for the bill: Mack Jackson, a preacher from Sandersville.)

Much the same pattern could be seen in the vote on HB 426, the hate crime legislation.

A total of 17 House members either sought to be excused from the vote, or didn’t record one. Thirteen were Republican.

Among the excused: Belton of Buckhead, Ga.; Cooper of Marietta; Katie Dempsey of Rome; Matt Dollar of Marietta; Barry Fleming of Harlem; Harrell of Snellville; Hatchett of Dublin; Bill Hitchins of Rincon; and Martin of Alpharetta.

Republicans whose votes were not recorded: Shaw Blackmon of Bonaire; Bill Hitchens of Rincon; Lynn Smith of Newnan; and Ed Setzler of Acworth.

***

A bridge too far: With the attention and drama surrounding the “heartbeat” abortion restrictions, a constitutional amendment to legalize gambling never reached a House vote.

House Speaker David Ralston, who wanted to let the ballot question move forward, said Republican rank-and-file felt it was too much. 

“There is an appetite for a vote. We had a lot of other big issues out there, and maybe we come back and deal with it next year,” Ralston said, pausing. “That might have been too heavy of a lift. But I don’t think the issue is going to go away - but I think that this year was probably a little soon.” 

***

Late Thursday, Ralston also cast some shade on the “heartbeat” bill’s chances in the Senate. Said the speaker: 

"I don't know. I wish I could say, you know this bill has been over there as long as it's been here, and they didn't have a committee hearing. They didn't vote it. So I know they're saying it's an easy decision, but apparently it wasn't easy up until now, but the House has acted so we'll wait and see what they do."

Something unusual has already happened with HB 481. Lt. Geoff Duncan this morning assigned it to the Senate Science and Techonology Committee, chaired by state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. Unterman was deposed as the long-time chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee as the session began.

***

Unterman was pushed aside from the health committee chairmanship for Ben Watson, an advocate for easing restrictions on private competition with hospitals.

But that effort failed in the House on Thursday by a vote of 72 to 94. The restriction in question is called Certificate of Need, or CON. CON is aimed to protect nonprofit hospitals from being financially damaged by for-profit competition.

***

Our AJC colleague David Wickert reports that a bill that could spark a transit expansion across Georgia cleared the House of Representatives on Thursday — but with a tweak that could eventually hit ride-hailing companies and their customers in the wallet.

House Bill 511 would allow Georgia counties — once they receive voter approval — to raise sales taxes for transit expansion. And it would launch pilot programs to help transport unemployed Georgians to jobs.

The bill would pay for those programs by dedicating the state sales tax on rides for hire to transit - a change from the original bill.

***

A controversial bill to prevent cities and counties from setting design restrictions on homes, furiously opposed by local governments, appears to be dead for the session.

Our AJC colleague J.D. Capelouto says HB 302, as well as its Senate companion, failed make it to a chamber floor on Thursday.

***

Politico reports this morning that former President Jimmy Carter has offered to to travel to North Korea to try and break an impasse between President Donald Trump the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un. The offer was conveyed via U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who met with Carter in Atlanta on Thursday.

***

In Washington, it’s been difficult to keep up with internal deliberations among House Democrats over remarks by freshman U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., suggesting congressional supporters of Israel had dual allegiances.

The House ended up overwhelmingly passing a resolution 407 to 23 that broadly condemned anti-Semitism and other hatred on Thursday without condemning or mentioning Omar.

Leading floor debate for the GOP, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, condemned what he saw as Democrats’ slapdash and milquetoast approach to the controversy. A final copy of the resolution was not available until shortly before the vote on Thursday afternoon. It denounced hatred against traditionally persecuted peoples, including Jews, Muslims and African-Americans.

“My heart breaks,” Collins said. “My heart breaks for this institution when we see something that’s anti-Semitic, but we say, ‘Well, they may not have known it was.’”

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, backed the measure. Omar’s comment, he said, was “out of bounds and doesn't need to be repeated.” “The Jewish members had the opportunity to assert their position on the comment that was made, so I'm hopeful that this having happened we can all move forward with more awareness and sensitivity to each other,” said Johnson, who has weathered criticism from Jewish groups for past comments on Israeli settlers and President Trump.

All but one of Georgia’s 14 House lawmakers voted in favor of the resolution. The sole “no” vote came from Tom Graves. The Ranger Republican called it a “sham vote that failed to address the real purpose of the debate, which was to denounce the ongoing prejudicial and anti-Semitic actions from a sitting member of Congress.”

***

The U.S. House is turning next to its overhaul of elections, voting rights and ethics rules. We’ll have more on that a little later, but we’re expecting a party-line vote with all Georgia Republicans voting against it. It will get zero floor time in the U.S. Senate. 

***

Senators left Washington for the weekend without a deal in hand on Hurricane Michael relief. Funding for Puerto Rico continues to be a hold-up on the $13.6 billion natural disaster relief package being quarterbacked by U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson. 

“We’re trying to balance what we think we can do and what the president will sign,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., one of the key shapers of the bill. We’ve been told that President Donald Trump has agreed to sign off on the measure’s original $610 million for Puerto Rico’s nutrition programs, but Democrats are seeking more. Republicans have privately vented about Democratic leaders moving the goalposts during the negotiations. 

Isakson left the Senate floor on Thursday optimistic about the direction of negotiations. “Everything is fine. Things are in good shape,” he said. 

The bill’s boosters are hoping to finalize an agreement next week, before the Senate adjourns for a week-long recess. 

***

One big item on the U.S. Senate’s agenda next week: Democrats’ resolution of disapproval on Trump’s border emergency. Perdue has already announced he’ll vote against it - after a trip to the border last month he said the drug traffic there constituted a real emergency. 

As of yesterday, Isakson still hadn’t made up his mind. Read more about how he’s approaching the big vote here. 

***

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, is going back to his roots. 

The three-term Republican is launching a podcast through his new role as the communications chair for the conservative House Freedom Caucus. The weekly show will feature group members and their allies on and off Capitol Hill. 

“On this podcast we’ll cut through some of the misconceptions about the Freedom Caucus and bring individual members on for up-close and personal conversations about policy, politics, and their lives,” said Hice, who hosted a show on conservative talk radio before being elected to Congress. 

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