House members throw paper in the air to celebrate the end of the 2019 session of the Legislature at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday. EMILY HANEY, emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney/emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney/emily.haney@ajc.com

The Jolt: In the final hours, lawmakers allow metro Atlanta transit talk to proceed

Democrats cast themselves as ‘the party of business’

One of the more subtle but important results of the final hours of the 2019 session of the General Assembly is that the debate over bringing transit into metro Atlanta will be allowed to continue. From our AJC colleague David Wickert:

Just before midnight Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that gives Cobb County until 2021 to devise the boundaries of a special transit district where voters could decide to join MARTA. The Senate had passed the measure earlier.

Last year, lawmakers passed legislation that allowed 13 metro Atlanta counties to raise money for transit expansion. Cobb’s deadline had been this November.

Hours earlier, House Republican leaders had stripped out of Senate Bill 200 a provision backed by Gwinnett GOP lawmakers that would have barred another MARTA referendum until 2026.

Voters defeated a March 19 bid to bring heavy transit into the county -- an initiative that had been moved off the November 2018 ballot. Charlotte Nash, the Gwinnett commission chair, is contemplating another vote in 2020 or 2022.

***

Almost as soon as a confetti of shredded bills had settled to the floor, Georgia Democrats emerged from Sine Die with a sharp new economic message: They are the party of business, not Republicans.

Democratic lawmakers were careful not to be seen at a Tuesday evening rally in the state Capitol, where actress Alyssa Milano and local movie industry workers threatened a boycott of the state’s film and TV studios if Gov. Brian Kemp should sign House Bill 481, the “heartbeat” bill that would ban nearly all abortions in Georgia.

But they were certainly eager to argue that the measure would chill the state’s business climate.

SB 131, which would have paved the way for a state takeover of Atlanta’s airport, passed the Senate with strong Republican support, but died in the House on Tuesday – without the governor ever publicly weighing in on the matter.

Then there was the failure to pass a 20-year jet fuel tax exemption that would mostly benefit Delta Air Lines, the Atlanta-based behemoth that is the state’s largest private employer.

This was the second such snub to Delta in as many years, and both times the tax breaks were vehemently opposed by Senate Republicans -- and aggressively backed by Senate Democrats. 

Minutes after the final gavel banged the session to a close, state Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the state Democratic party, pivoted to the economic argument:

“You can’t just say you’re the No. 1 state to do business. You have to live those values. And that includes making sure we are open for business for everyone. That includes women.

Kemp, in an interview with the AJC earlier in the evening, said he’s unconcerned with a business backlash over the anti-abortion bill:

“Our business environment is good. We cannot change our values of who we are for money. And we’re not going to do that. That’s what makes our state great. For people to want to boycott the state because we are protecting life at the heartbeat – I don’t understand that. It just doesn’t make very much sense to me, and I think I’ve shown early on I’m a business-friendly governor.”

***

In that interview, Governor Kemp indicated that he almost certainly would sign the “heartbeat” bill. “I can’t govern because I’m worried about what someone in Hollywood thinks about me,” he said.

But Kemp might ought to worry about what someone in east Cobb County thinks.

Earlier this week, we told you that the Marietta Daily Journal had caught up with state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, who had missed the vote on HB 481 in her chamber because of a funeral. Kirkpatrick, an orthopedic surgeon by training, said she would have voted against it because it might criminalize the actions of her OB-GYN colleagues.

This morning, the newspaper allowed state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, a nurse by training and chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, to explain her Friday vote against HB 481. From the MDJ:

“Both Kay and I are pro-life, but first of all the bill is blatantly unconstitutional. And that’s because of the personhood issue saying that a fetus has the rights of someone who is born,” Cooper said.

Not only is it unconstitutional, Cooper said, but “it puts regular doctors — not abortionists, but just regular OB-GYNs — at risk of being sued or criminally charged. It lets district attorneys go into medical records, and that’s against HIPPA.”

Cooper was referring to the federal legislation that protects the privacy of patient medical information.

***

It’s entirely possible that tonight you’ll hear more about the “heartbeat” bill, which opponents are attempting to reframe as a “forced pregnancy” measure. Democrat Stacey Abrams is scheduled to be on CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

***

Early this session, we told you about HB 42, a bill authored by state Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, that would bar the state from suspending the state-issued professional licenses of those who default on government-backed student loans -- nurses, insurance agents, termite exterminators, and the like.

It was a practical bit of legislation that won committee approval in the House but never reached the floor, possibly because, days after he introduced it, Turner signed onto a resolution calling for House Speaker David Ralston to resign his leadership role. This was in response to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found Ralston, a Blue Ridge lawyer in private practice, frequently delayed criminal cases by claiming court dates interfered with his legislative duties.

But this morning, Turner sent word that his legislation had been quietly tacked onto SB 214, a bill to change the number of apprenticeship hours required for barbers and cosmetologists.

The enlarged bill easily passed both chambers on Tuesday. “It simply makes no sense to take away a person’s ability to earn when they fall behind. And student loan debt never goes away,” Turner wrote in his text message to us. “I want to thank the LG and his staff for their help in making sure this important legislation found a way to the governor’s desk.”

***

The waning hours of the legislative session showcased an unusual fight that pitted a former leader of the Georgia Senate against his own caucus -- and his own brother-in-law.

State Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, was one of the six conferees to hash out a medical marijuana deal that would allow a limited number of dispensaries, let the state obtain cannabis oil and clear the way for universities to produce it. 

He was also the only one of six not to sign the report, a compromise that was brokered by Gov. Brian Kemp, his legislative ally and also his kin.

In an impassioned speech, Cowsert said the Senate disregarded a “carefully crafted” measure that he helped develop, and warned that it would set the path toward the commercialization of recreational marijuana.

The back-and-forth ended when Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan called the question -- and the measure eventually passed 34-20.

Kemp is likely to sign it, but he also acknowledged in an interview that he’s conflicted. 

“It’s a very, very tough issue. But there’s a lot of legislative support for it. I respect the legislative process, and I understand why people are doing it, and I understand why people have grave concerns about this,” the governor said. “I have all of those feelings. It’s a really tough spot.”

***

Call it a fond fare-the-well: On Tuesday, state Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, announced that he would be resigning his seat in the Legislature -- not a great surprise, given the demographic changes in Henry County.

But our AJC colleague James Salzer tells us that, on his way out the door, Welch introduced HB 734, a bill to create a state Journalism Ethics Board to develop “canons of ethics” for journalists in Georgia. It would be headed by the chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

One wonders whether the chancellor might be persuaded to locate this panel in Athens, reframe it as “a school of journalism,” then name it after a statue in downtown Atlanta.

It’s certainly an idea with possibilities.

***

For a candidate who announced her comeback congressional bid less than a week before the year’s first fundraising deadline, Republican Karen Handel took in an impressive total. Her campaign announced Tuesday that it had raised $325,000 in less than a week, no small amount for a congressional candidate – and particularly a non-incumbent. 

Where the money came from won’t be known for a few days.

Several of Handel’s online fundraising appeals have focused on liberal boogeymen such as Michael Bloomberg and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and their “radical socialist agenda,” as a Sunday email pitch to supporters put it.

Handel is looking to overwhelm her GOP primary opponent, state Sen. Brandon Beach, who announced his bid for her old seat back in January. She trotted out a lengthy list of early endorsements that includes the House’s top GOP leaders, most of the state’s Republican congressional delegation and two of her predecessors, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-health secretary Tom Price. We have yet to see the first-quarter fundraising numbers for Beach or U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, who unseated Handel in November.

***

Both U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue are backing the latest GOP effort to go “nuclear” in their chamber. A resolution to change Senate rules to allow speedier confirmation of lower-level executive branch nominees fell short of the required 60-vote threshold on Tuesday, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has plans afoot to change the rules with a majority-only vote as early as today.

Perdue and Isakson were both on board with McConnell’s 2017 move to lower the threshold for confirming U.S. Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to 51. That cleared the way for the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and later Brett Kavanaugh to the high court.

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