Unofficial Business: Ga. ‘religious liberty’ veto: Will business pay a price?

This debate about the “religious liberty” bill – the “anti-gay” legislation as some know it — isn’t over, of course. How could it be when there’s so much worry left to bathe in, so many hot buttons to push and distrust to milk.

Job recruiters, moviemakers, hotel operators, convention and big event planners, pro sports teams and leaders of a stunning array of businesses only scored a reprieve when Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed House Bill 757, which he said didn’t fit a state “filled with warm, friendly and loving people.”

Some HB 757 backers want to override the veto or re-launch the legislation next year. So we might only get a lull in the parade of businesses announcing concern about the legislation or promising to pull local investments if it becomes law.

Speaking of which, some state legislators have forgotten portions of their oath of office.

They swore to protect the U.S. and Georgia constitutions. They also swore they would conduct themselves in a way “most conducive to the interests and PROSPERITY of this state.” (I capitalized that word.)

Here’s what doesn’t look like backing “prosperity”: pushing something opposed by three-fourths of our locally-based Fortune 500 companies, many of the nation’s top employers, our biggest sports brands, lots of small companies and the organizations that help recruit jobs to Georgia.

I’d be fine with angering those business interests if it was to fix religious freedom seriously at risk here in Georgia.

But it’s not.

I’ve asked backers of HB 757. They can’t cite a recent case in Georgia where our courts have ruled against religious freedom in a way that would have been prevented under the proposed changes. The bill’s supporters cite instances of local employers who made missteps, but they all got resolved. They talk about cases in other states, but the laws there are different.

So far, the system here looks like its working. We have religious protections in law, including in the U.S. Constitution and in the state’s.

‘Take this job…’

So there’s no need for legislators to push Georgia workers out in front of them and tell employers to “Take this job and shove it,” as Johnny Paycheck once sang.

I wondered what the leaders of the state Senate and House committees for economic development had to say about it. They voted for HB 757, according to the General Assembly’s website.

I’ll have to keep wondering: They didn’t get back to me by deadline.

I also wonder whether unhappy legislators might plot payback against business leaders who had the temerity to push against HB 757.

Do you remember how, last year, legislators zapped a hefty tax break on jet fuel? The move hit Delta Air Lines in particular. I suspect the tax break needed to go anyway, but Delta’s CEO had gotten on legislators’ bad side after pushing hard for a tax increase for better roads and opposing earlier ‘religious liberty’ legislation.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, argued to axe the tax breaks.

Delta’s CEO is “a private citizen. He’s welcome to chime in on anything. [The religious liberty bills] didn’t drive me,” Ehrhart said, my colleague Jim Galloway reported at the time. “But will I more than happily take advantage of those who are tired of him chiming in to pass a piece of legislation? Absolutely.”

Payback coming?

I asked state Sen. Josh McKoon, a vocal backer of HB 757, if payback might be in store for companies that opposed the bill.

McKoon, a Republican from Columbus, told me that he has “known plenty of legislators that let personalities and other unrelated issues influence their policy making.”

But he said he isn’t among them. (He said he voted against the legislation that would have cut the jet fuel tax break.) He was, though, part of an unsuccessful last-minute legislative attempt recently to put businesses at risk of class-action lawsuits if they violated their own anti-discrimination policies.

Who has anti-discrimination policies that would have been covered? Most likely, some of the companies fighting McKoon and others on HB 757.

McKoon said he was merely “extending an olive branch” to those concerned about LGBT discrimination.

“I certainly didn’t think it was in any way vindictive,” he said.

He assured me that, “We ought to be about promoting jobs and economic development…. I am all for that.”

It’s time to prove it.

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