Georgia governor’s foster care veto dredges up ‘religious liberty’ fight

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed nine bills on Tuesday, the final day of the 40-day period he has to either nix a bill or sign it into law. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

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Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed nine bills on Tuesday, the final day of the 40-day period he has to either nix a bill or sign it into law. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed legislation Tuesday sought by foster care advocates, a move that dredged up a bitter fight over “religious liberty” that has long polarized the statehouse and seemed to thwart another initiative championed by the Republican and his allies.

The governor and his aides said his veto of the bill, which passed the Legislature by an overwhelming margin, had nothing to do with the feud over a stalled adoption measure that failed to pass in the legislative session’s final hours. But he invoked the standstill in his veto message, which appealed for a more sweeping approach to the issue in 2018.

The veto was among nine that Deal handed down Tuesday, which marked the end of the 40-day signing period. Other scuttled legislation included a measure that would have created a central agency to handle fees from 911 emergency calls and another that would have made it easier for students to opt out of standardized tests.

Deal also signed dozens more bills into law ahead of the deadline, including an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program, a new package of criminal justice changes and a $60 million tax credit designed for investors in rural projects that critics assailed as a corporate giveaway.

The veto of the foster care legislation opened a new wound for some conservatives. House Bill 359 would have allowed parents to transfer power of attorney over their children to a family member or an outside agency for a year without going through the courts.

In a veto message, Deal said the measure was “well-intentioned” but that it would have created a system with no oversight that would have overlapped with the state’s child welfare agency. He called for a “comprehensive foster care/adoption reform legislative package” next year — his last legislative session — to streamline the adoption process.

“We have to try to make sure the legislation is consistent with what our state’s purposes are and what our state agencies are doing,” the governor said Tuesday in a brief interview.

Did ‘politics get in the way’?

The nixing of the legislation frustrated the Republican supporters of the bill, including some who suggested that the governor let his frustration over the failed adoption measure influence his veto.

The bill's author, state Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem, said other states are already using "similar private methods to keep hurting kids out of our troubled, government-run systems." And state Rep. Geoff Duncan, who co-sponsored the plan, lamented that it could have had an "immediate positive impact" on struggling families.

“I do agree with the governor’s comments about using 2018 as an opportunity to finally be serious about reforming our foster and adoption systems,” he said, “and not let politics get in the way.”

Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan said the foster care veto was no tit for tat and that the governor looks forward to working with “legislators and stakeholders on additional and comprehensive reforms in the future.”

But it was bound to bring up memories of the tumultuous end of the legislative session, when the adoption bill was complicated by a late push in the Senate to inject a controversial provision that would have allowed some private agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples.

In the final days of the session, Deal repeatedly said he wanted a "clean" adoption bill without the religious liberty addition, and he threatened to veto the measure if not. House Speaker David Ralston echoed his concerns.

But the House and Senate couldn’t forge a compromise over the measure, which was tied up in the Senate in the final minutes of the session. Ralston vented his frustration shortly after banging the final gavel at the close of the legislative session that he “hoped the Senate would do the right thing.”

In a statement Tuesday, Ralston said he “never imagined” that a measure passed unanimously by the House twice would fail to pass the Senate. He said he hoped “our colleagues in the Senate will show some strong leadership, put aside petty politics and do the right thing.”

He added, “Hundreds of foster children awaiting adoption in Georgia deserve no less.”

State Sen. Josh McKoon, a longtime advocate of religious liberty legislation, accused House Republicans of playing politics with adoption policy and said the failure to pass the bill was an "indictment of our legislative process."

“If Republican leaders can spend more time governing and working on policy and less time posturing and pointing fingers,” he said, “I’m sure we can pass a comprehensive adoption bill in 2018.”

On par

The nine vetoes Deal issued were about on par for the governor. Through his first five years in office, Deal averaged about eight vetoes a year, along with a scarcer number of line-item vetoes, though last year that total soared to 16 and included two nixed bills that made national headlines.

Despite the strains over the foster care measure, this signing period has left him with easier choices than the fraught experience in 2016, when he vetoed both a religious liberty measure and a campus gun proposal  — and conservatives promised all manner of payback.

Whatever revenge they had in store never really surfaced this legislative session, when Deal avoided tough calls on a religious liberty revival and a sweeping income tax cut because both failed to reach his desk. Even his most high-profile decision — the signing of this year's version of the campus gun measure — was a minor victory. It included several concessions he insisted upon.

Still, he was left with a host of tough decisions on lower-profile bills such as Senate Bill 133, a $60 million tax credit plan opposed by critics who say it's little more than a handout to a few giant national capital companies. Deal vetoed a similar plan in 2015, but he signed this one into law after supporters added provisions that they said would safeguard taxpayers.

And he took a victory lap Tuesday in Macon, signing a trio of changes to the criminal justice system that has long been a passion project. Deal was overwhelmed with emotion as he talked at a Macon law enforcement summit about the changes aimed at keeping more low-level offenders out of prison.

“It is the ultimate ideal of redemption,” he told the crowd. “And we all ought to be in the business of redemption.”

A closer look at some of Deal’s vetoes:

  • House Bill 359, known as the Supporting and Strengthening Families Act, would have allowed parents to transfer power of attorney over their children to an outside agency for a year without going through the courts. Deal said it would have created a "parallel and unchecked" system that overlapped with the state's child welfare department.
  • Senate Bill 222 would have created a central agency responsible for collecting, auditing and administering revenue from 911 fees for emergency calls. Deal said he will sign an executive order to create a similar agency in the state's emergency management department.
  • House Bill 425 would have made it easier for students to opt out of standardized state tests. In his veto statement, Deal said it should be up to local school boards to make that decision.