Georgia session reboot opens with new call for hate-crimes law

Gov. Brian Kemp arrives at the Georgia Capitol on Monday as members of the Legislature return to restart the legislative session that was suspended to stem the spread of COVID-19. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp arrives at the Georgia Capitol on Monday as members of the Legislature return to restart the legislative session that was suspended to stem the spread of COVID-19. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

With protesters outside and inside the Capitol demanding change, the Georgia General Assembly reopened for business Monday amid bipartisan calls to pass hate-crimes legislation.

The rebooting of the 2020 session, which was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, came during protests over the recent killing of African Americans, including unarmed black jogger Ahmaud Arbery, shot by a white man who chased him down, and the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks on Friday night in the parking lot of an Atlanta fast-food restaurant.

Hate-crimes legislation has stalled in the Senate after passing the House last year. The Senate committee that would handle the bill didn’t meet Monday as originally scheduled.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, made an impassioned plea in his chamber for the Senate to act.

“All Georgians were shocked by the senseless murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was hunted like an animal and shot with a shotgun at point-blank range,” Ralston said. “Members of this body, that is hate.

“If we leave here this session without passing a hate-crimes bill, it will be a stain on this state that we can never wash away.”

Lawmakers returned for the final 11 working days of the session facing state finances wrecked by the pandemic recession, as well as calls for police and criminal justice reform.

Legislators entered the building for their social-distancing session through scanners that checked their temperatures. House members were required to wear masks; most senators also wore them in their chamber, although Republican leaders eschewed them in the first committee meeting of the day.

Sentate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said masks weren't mandated for his members.

“As has been the case in the past, each and every senator has a voice and each voice shall be heard,” he said. “We ask senators to be considerate, mindful and respectful of the health and well-being of their colleagues as well as to consider their own health and well-being.”

Most lobbyists also wore masks, although a few didn’t and ignored social distancing.

The 180-member House was spread out in three locations: the chamber, the public galleries and a third-floor meeting room. Some members of the Senate were in the chamber, some watched on a stream. Some Republican senators sat right next to each others, while others were spread out.

That is a far cry from more typical sessions. They are usually crowded, noisy affairs, with hundreds of lobbyists and members of the public packed into the halls around the chambers, creating a target-rich environment for diseases such as COVID-19.

The pandemic has caused a massive recession, with record unemployment and thousands of business either closed or struggling to remain open. That, in turn, has sent state tax collections — mostly income and sales taxes — plummeting.

Lawmakers must, by law, pass a budget before the new fiscal year starts July 1 — and they face cutting about $2.6 billion for everything from k-12 schools and universities to the Georgia State Patrol, food safety inspections, highway construction, mental health and substance abuse programs, and county health department funding.

But two weeks of protests have also helped make the hate-crimes legislation — which Democrats have been pushing for years and some House Republicans backed in 2019 — a priority.

The measure would allow stiffer sentences for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.

"Let's try, let's do it, let's catch up," said Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, who has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation for about 20 years aimed at ending racial profiling. "It's not everything we want. Let's start the process now and move Georgia forward. The people of Georgia deserve that."

Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, said "hate crimes" have been happening for decades, but the ability of cellphones to record them is providing evidence to people who might not have wanted to believe it.

“The blinders are off,” he said. “We know hate crimes exist. It is not just a black issue, it is not just a Democratic issue, it’s a people’s issue.”

Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, said, "Let us stand against hate together."

In the Senate, some Republican lawmakers also expressed support for law enforcement.

Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, a retired law enforcement officer, defended the police, calling them "my people."

"The men and women of law enforcement, they do not hate," he said, asking colleagues not to cut funding to state law enforcement agencies when they approve a new budget in the coming days. A budget proposal from the Department of Public Safety would furlough patrolmen two days a month without pay in the coming fiscal year because of requests to cut spending 14%.

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, told fellow senators: "Georgia is open for business. We respect the men and women in blue."

Referring to the “defund the police” slogan some protesters have used to push to divert a portion of police funding to social programs, Mullis said Georgia should be attractive to people and businesses from other states because it will not cut police funding.

Some powerful Senate leaders have raised objections to the House's hate-crimes bill, including Jesse Stone, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate’s president, wants changes to the House measure that he says would strengthen it. That means even if a version is approved by the Senate, it would have to return to the House for another vote, and it barely got enough support to pass the last time.

Georgia is one of few states in the nation without such a measure after a previous law was declared unconstitutional in 2004.

In the House on Monday, Ralston urged the Senate to move on the hate-crimes bill.

“Lip service and talk will not pass this or any other bill,” he said. “We must proclaim from every corner of this state that Georgia is better than this.”

Democrats and some Republicans have also announced plans to back other changes.

Democrats want lawmakers to repeal the state’s citizen’s arrest statute, which prosecutors initially cited in the death of Arbery to justify the decision not to charge the white father-and-son duo filmed in the fatal confrontation. The men were later charged.

They have also called on lawmakers to overhaul the state’s stand-your-ground law. And they say the state should encourage civilian review boards for police departments to review hiring, use of force and other complaints.

How to view General Assembly meetings

The Georgia Legislature on Monday ended its three-month hiatus that was aimed at impeding the spread of the coronavirus.

Chamber galleries are closed to the public. But all meetings will be available to stream through the Georgia General Assembly website. General Assembly live broadcasts can be reached through the Live Broadcast sidebar on the home page.

Visitors can attend House committee meetings, if space permits and they’re wearing masks, but those meetings can also be viewed through the Media Services tab on the House website.

Senate committee meeting broadcasts can be located through the Senate Press Office tab on the Senate website.