In a session likely dominated by politics and budget cuts, Georgia lawmakers will still find time this year to debate the kind of hot-button issues that traditionally split the General Assembly along party lines.
Election years often bring an uptick in the number of bills addressing things such as “religious liberty” and abortion that play to each party’s political base.
A couple of House Republicans already are focusing on transgender issues. A bill creating stiffer punishments for those committing hate crimes could be considered this session — which starts Monday — and legislation clamping down on access to guns remains in play.
Anti-abortion activists say they don’t expect to pursue legislation putting further restrictions on the procedure while a law approved last year makes its way through the courts. But they said similar things about new restrictions last year, before lawmakers passed that law, which would ban abortion once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity.
And lawmakers are preparing for the potential return of religious liberty legislation. Conservative lawmakers have tried for years to pass a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which limits the government’s ability to pass laws that conflict with religious beliefs.
Each year, Republican leaders of the state House and Senate say they would prefer to focus on other issues — such as the state’s budget or efforts to bolster the state’s rural economy — while Democrats typically focus on health care expansion and voting rights.
But each year, at least one polarizing issue makes its way into headlines and takes over the session, at least temporarily. With elections on the horizon, it’s almost a given this year won’t be any different.
Such fights over sensitive issues reflect a growing political rift among many Americans, and focusing on those topics could alienate moderate voters on both sides. But the GOP and Democratic bases on the right and left love those same issues.
If incumbent lawmakers face primary challengers in an election year like 2020, they’re more likely to propose legislation that plays to their bases, state and local government lobbyist Sharon A. Gay said.
“You start having people in leadership or (Republicans) who’ve got some degree of stature in the Legislature who start getting worried about a primary and getting worried about getting outflanked on the right, then all of a sudden religious liberty shows up,” she said. “So there could be things like that, that people don’t really want to deal with, that get driven by even an individual House or Senate race.”
And a fight over which party controls the Georgia House is likely in the back of every legislator’s mind.
Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint said it would be wise for Republicans to shy away from controversial issues this year if they hope to maintain control in the House.
Democrats are trying to take 16 seats from Republicans, mostly in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, to become the chamber’s majority party. It may seem like a long shot, but Democratic lawmakers picked up 11 House seats in 2018.
“I know a lot of people are talking about those (social) issues, I just don’t know how much oxygen there’s going to be in the room for that this year,” Swint said. “I don’t know how much support there’s going to be for legislation on social issues that haven’t already been aired out.”
Longtime Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said the Legislature’s main focus should be passing a balanced budget, but there are 236 lawmakers in the General Assembly who have to decide the best way to win re-election.
“We have some that may want to use other issues to try to help their re-election,” he said. “But once they do it, they’re on record for that issue. That’s why I tell people be careful what you put your name on.”
Still, some lawmakers say they hope to see movement on more polarizing legislative issues this year.
Newly elected Rep. Philip Singleton, a Sharpsburg Republican, has filed legislation that would ban teams from using public facilities if transgender children are competing in single-gender sporting events that don’t align with their gender at birth.
And Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, announced her intent to file a bill that would make it a felony for medical professionals to help a minor with gender transition through surgery or medication.
Ehrhart said it was important to protect minors from harm.
“The uprising of outrage that I’m hearing — from constituents, from individuals, from groups and organizations — that are just sort of appalled at what they’re seeing as an epidemic of essentially child abuse as it relates to this sort of medical practice upon the bodies of minor children,” she said.
Rep. Matt Wilson, a Brookhaven Democrat, said he views legislation addressing transgender youth as an attempt from conservative lawmakers to hold on to control of the General Assembly.
“I think, sadly, it’s the last gasp of some far-right-wing Republicans trying to maintain their majority, so they pivot to social issues to do that,” Wilson said. “But I think the vast majority of Georgians see this for what it is — which is, plain and simple, discrimination.”
Wilson said he will continue to push legislation he introduced last year that would ban licensed therapists and medical professionals from engaging in the scientifically discredited practice of “conversion therapy,” which some may use to try to change an LGBTQ person’s sexuality or gender identity.
Eighteen states, as well as the District of Columbia, have bans in place.
If Georgia passed a ban, it would be the first state in the South to do so.
Virginia Galloway, a lobbyist with the Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition, called the legislation government overreach.
“I (don’t believe) a government should say you can’t get therapy that you want because it’s not politically correct for this therapy to exist,” she said.
But Jeff Graham, the executive director of the LGBTQ rights organization Georgia Equality, said passing legislation to ban conversion therapy and approving the hate crimes bill that made it out of the House last year but stalled in the Senate was “incredibly important.”
“We’re headed into another contentious election cycle where many groups of people are going to be worried about attacks because of who they are, how they worship and who they love,” Graham said.
Georgia is one of four states that doesn’t have a hate crimes law.
If passed, Georgia’s proposal could increase jail time for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.
The bill’s sponsor, Dacula Republican state Rep. Chuck Efstration, said he hopes to continue to educate lawmakers about the importance of a having a law on the books that penalizes those who commit crimes based in hate.
“We’ve had incidents over the past 12 months where the enactment of a hate crimes law would have allowed prosecutors to seek enhancements on penalties at sentencing,” Efstration said.
In November, police arrested a 16-year-old girl who is accused of planning to kill parishioners at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The girl, who is white, is accused of targeting the Gainesville church because most of its members are black.
Anti-abortion activists continue to celebrate the passage of last year’s bill, saying they will let the issue make its way through the courts before proposing additional measures to limit the procedure.
“There are many of us who would love to have no abortion available at all because we understand that it takes human life,” Galloway said. “But at the same time, we understand the political realities of what we’re dealing with.”
Abortion-rights advocates are preparing to fight any proposals that might come up.
The national abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America has identified Georgia as a priority this year, launching a digital advertising “educational campaign” that targets state legislators who voted in support of last year’s legislation.
Lawmakers on both sides of the issue are preparing to tackle any religious liberty measures that are proposed.
Such legislation could be introduced as a stand-alone bill. Or it could be attached to another measure, similar to what happened in 2017, when lawmakers amended a bill aimed at streamlining the state’s adoption laws to include language that would have allowed faith-based agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples.
Opponents of religious liberty legislation say they worry that could happen again this year.
Gov. Brian Kemp has stated plans to promote a bill that he says would help more families adopt foster care children and “ease the bureaucracy and red tape” of the system. He has not yet released details of what that could look like.
Proposed foster care legislation could create an opportunity for those seeking to pass religious liberty measures by crafting an amendment allowing agencies to keep children from being placed with gay couples.
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