Georgia Legislature leaves governor with big decisions

The most strained legislative session since Gov. Nathan Deal was elected to the state’s top job ended Thursday with the distinct possibility that he could veto the two highest-profile bills that emerged from 40 frenzied days of lawmaking.

Legislators ignored his last-minute pleas to make changes to legislation that would lift the weapons ban on college campuses. And they passed a sweeping “religious liberty” bill maligned by corporate leaders and gay rights groups after he warned he would reject any legislation that legalized discrimination.

The two-term Republican hasn't said what he'll do with either of the measures. But vetoing one or both measures would undoubtedly usher in a more acrimonious chapter with Republican lawmakers and could risk his legacy-making plan to "revolutionize" how public schools operate.

“I’ve been very reserved. I respect the legislative process. I still do,” Deal said. “I just think we have some issues this time that have rather long-term and monumental significance.”

It brings an element of suspense to the 40-day bill-signing period that began Friday and extends to May 3. And some lawmakers are already threatening payback against Deal, who prides himself on smooth relations with the legislative branch, if he rejects the measures.

State Sen. Bill Heath, one of the chamber’s most conservative legislators, said he would call for a “veto session” to rebuke the governor if he rejects the religious exemptions bill. It takes a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override a veto — a threshold the bill failed to reach in its initial passage — but it speaks to the bubbling legislative angst over the measure.

The governor’s behind-the-scenes work with lawmakers to influence legislation typically leaves few, if any, questions about whether he’ll sign the most consequential bills. He’s wielded the veto pen rarely in his first five years in office, and most of the bills he’s nullified have been relatively obscure.

This time, though, he appeared to have abandoned any concerns about publicly inserting himself into debates still pending under the Gold Dome.

He sounded a skeptical note in January over the expansion of Georgia's medical marijuana program and raised loud and repeated questions about the legalization of casino gambling. Both those measures petered out amid sharp divisions in the Legislature.

Deal waded into even bigger legislative battles in March when he delivered a blunt critique of the "religious liberty" measure, calling on evangelical supporters to "take a deep breath" and recognize the reality of the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

And, three days after the Senate gave final approval to a measure that would allow college students to carry concealed guns onto campuses, the governor called for substantive changes to the measure to address his concerns raised by university presidents about the bill.

In both cases, lawmakers defied his calls for changes. House Speaker David Ralston, long a Deal ally, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a likely contender for governor in 2018, both drew a hard line on the two measures and said further revisions were unnecessary.

Democrats, who staunchly opposed both measures, were eager to characterize them as election-year pandering.

“It was a surreal session,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber. “It was the God, guns and gays session. We were obsessed with social issues, and health care and higher wages were sidelined. It’s a year where we went to the extremist camp.”

Time for the public to weigh in

The end of the legislative session means debate over both bills now shifts from the halls of the Gold Dome to the public sphere.

Religious conservatives have lobbied for measures the past three legislative sessions they say would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against faith-based groups. This year the effort was linked to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

Business leaders and gay rights activists cast it as little more than legalized discrimination and warn it can irreparably harm Georgia's business reputation. A growing list of international corporations and Hollywood heavyweights have threatened the consequences, and more than a dozen conventions have threatened to pull out of Georgia.

The campus carry fight is equally contentious. Gun rights advocates have long wanted to expand the right to bear arms to universities, but an effort in 2014 to include it in a sweeping firearms bill narrowly failed.

After this year’s measure cleared both chambers, the governor pushed lawmakers to make changes involving whether firearms could be permitted at on-campus day care centers, inside classrooms and during disciplinary hearings. Yet lawmakers avoided altering other minor gun measures that were still pending to incorporate the revisions he sought.

Already, his office has been deluged with thousands of emails and hundreds of phone calls covering every angle of both debates.

As for the governor, he’s remained tightlipped about how he’ll respond.

“I’ve listened to comments and expressions of opinion from both sides on the issue,” he said late Thursday. “And I do consider them. I consider all of those opinions.”

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