The Follow Up: Pressure builds for a Georgia hate-crimes law

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, left, and House Speaker David Ralston are two key figures in whether the General Assembly passes a hate-crimes bill this year. Ralston has called on the state Senate to pass House Bill 426 as is. If the bill is amended in the Senate, it would have to go back for a final vote in the House, where it won by a slim margin in 2019 and could meet failure in another vote. Duncan, the head of the Senate, has said he thinks the bill needs changes. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

When the Georgia General Assembly voted March 12 to suspend its session, few people in the state knew much about the death 18 days earlier of Ahmaud Arbery.

But in the 13 weeks since, while the Legislature was on its coronavirus hiatus, the fatal shooting of the unarmed black man has dominated state headlines and energized a push for a hate-crimes law in Georgia.

That push grew stronger following the death of George Floyd after a video showed the African American man gasp his last breaths as the knee of a Minneapolis police officer pressed against his neck. Protests followed across the nation and around the world, demonstrating against police brutality.

>>RELATED: Georgia legislators set to return to a much-different session

It remains uncertain whether the push will succeed in creating a hate-crimes law to replace one the state’s Supreme Court struck down in 2004 — and remove Georgia from a short list of states that have no such statute — but supporters include some heavy hitters.

Count Georgia House Speaker David Ralston among them.

Responding to the killing of Arbery during a Feb. 23 confrontation with a white father and son near Brunswick, Ralston called on the state Senate to passHouse Bill 426, a hate-crimes measure the House approved in 2019. Following Floyd's death in May, Ralston declared himself "more committed to a hate-crimes law than ever."

HB 426 would provide sentencing guidelines for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability. A person convicted of a crime and proved to have been motivated by bias would face an additional punishment ranging from three months to a year and a fine of up to $5,000 for a misdemeanor offense to at least two years in prison for a felony offense.

Georgia's business community has also gotten on board. First, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce sought "swift passage" of a hate-crimes bill. Then executives from hundreds of companies with millions of employees worldwide signed a letter seeking a "comprehensive" hate-crimes law.

But HB 426 remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, state Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, says the bill has raised a "philosophical concern" about requiring different punishments for similar crimes.

The measure faces some other challenges.

Ralston wants the Senate to approve HB 426 “as is” because any amendment would return it to the House, where it could fail after only winning passage last year by a slim margin of five votes.

But Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the head of the Senate, has said that while he believes Georgia needs a hate-crimes law, he thinks HB 426 requires work.

"I think we can do better than House Bill 426," Duncan told CNN. "I've been told by an African American gentleman sitting in my office that House Bill 426, if passed, would be the weakest hate-crimes law in the country. And quite honestly, that's not good enough. …

“We have 11 days to craft a hate crimes bill that will make Georgia the worst place to commit a hate crime and the best place to love your neighbor.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have said the hate-crimes bill should be part of a broader criminal justice overhaulHouse Minority Leader Bob Trammell has said the state should repeal its citizen's arrest statute, which prosecutors initially cited in the death of Arbery to justify the decision not to charge the father-and-son duo filmed in the fatal confrontation. He also wants an overhaul of Georgia's stand-your-ground laws to prevent residents from citing the rules when they "chase someone down and kill them." And he said the state should encourage civilian review boards for police departments to review hiring, use of force and other complaints.

Time to fold on gambling legislation?

When 2020 began, supporters of legislation to expand gambling in Georgia appeared to be playing a better hand than usual.

The thinking was that the state would be looking for new sources of revenue — such as casinos, horse racing and sports betting — after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered cuts of 4% this fiscal year and 6% for the year that begins July 1 in order to meet what was being speculated to be a potentially mild downturn in the economy. Ah, simpler times.

The call for cuts grew to 11% when that downturn, fueled by the coronavirus, took a much deeper dive than previously speculated.

So is it time for gambling supporters to up the ante? Not really.

Among the bigger casualties of this year's Crossover Day — way back on March 12 — was House Resolution 378, which would have sought an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to allow people to play the horses, shoot craps or place a wager on their favorite team. HR 378 never got a vote on the House floor.

Still, one should consider that Crossover Day is described as the deadline for legislation to typically move from one chamber to another and have a chance of becoming law. This year, little has been typical.

Vape tax proposal fails to cross over

Another bill that met its end on Crossover Day but also had a revenue component was House Bill 864, which sought an excise tax on vaping products.

The measure called for a 7% tax on the sale of e-cigarettes, nicotine vaporizers and associated products. It also would have required retailers to buy an annual license in order to sell them. The licenses would have a one-time cost of $250 and a $10 annual fee.

HB 864, sponsored by state Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, had support from parents and medical professionals who wanted to discourage teens from vaping.

Opposing the bill were the owners of vaping shops, who made a case that adding a tax on their products would make them more expensive than cigarettes — and, thus, making it more enticing to teens to switch to butts.

Meanwhile, there appears to be growing support to boost the state’s tax on cigarettes, which at 37 cents a pack is among the lowest in the nation.

A poll conducted by Landmark Communications on behalf of the American Heart Association, which backs increasing the tax, found that nearly three-quarters of Georgia voters supported boosting the levy to $1.50 per pack.

The poll was taken shortly after state agencies were ordered to prepare plans to cut their budgets — the target is now set at $2.6 billion. The question posed to 500 voters also suggested that the increased tax would raise nearly $500 million a year toward balancing the state budget.

Gun rights bill goes down without a vote

A bill that would have expanded gun rights never made it to the Senate floor on Crossover Day.

Senate Bill 224 would have made intent the issue in whether a licensed gun owner would be allowed to pull or show a firearm during a dispute. The bill would have made it OK to display a weapon as long as the owner didn't "aim it offensively" or otherwise use it "in a threatening manner."

But that was just one component of the bill.

ExploreIt also would have:
  • Allowed gun owners to carry their weapons into places of worship, unless the congregation adopted a policy forbidding them. Under current law, parishioners and congregants can only carry firearms if the place of worship's governing body has exercised an "opt in" allowing the weapons. Gun rights advocates said few had chosen to do so.
  • Permitted gun owners to bring their weapons into court buildings when there are no judicial proceedings and officers of the court are not conducting official business. Guns still would not be allowed in court buildings that require visitors to go through security. Current law bans guns from courthouses at all times.
  • Spared people convicted of misdemeanor drug possession from facing a five-year suspension of their weapons permit.
  • End the classification of antique guns as weapons.
  • Required law enforcement authorities to sell firearms that had been confiscated.

‘Religious liberty’ adoption bill falls

The state Senate did not act on legislation that would have allowed faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples or those with different religious beliefs.

Senate Bill 368 was one of the most prominent "religious liberty" measures proposed in the session.

Recent sessions have seen a flurry of such bills, whose advocates say they are needed to add a layer of protection for people of faith. Opponents, however, say such legislation could allow discrimination against groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Supporters of Senate Bill 368 said it would have allowed birth mothers to ensure their children grow up with a specific religious background. Opponents called the legislation blatantly discriminatory.

Senior care measures don’t move forward

Two bills tackling issues at the state's nursing homes and assisted living facilities also stalled in the last week before legislators suspended the session.

House Bill 955 was aiming to help make sure local coroners or medical examiners are notified of unexpected deaths in senior care homes. It got stuck in committee after the nursing home industry raised numerous concerns.

House Bill 849 would have allowed families to install so-called "granny cams" in rooms at nursing homes and assisted living facilities to monitor what's going on with their loved ones.

The bills were filed earlier this year after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation identified significant gaps in the reporting system for elder abuse and neglect in Georgia's assisted living and personal care homes. The investigation documented nearly 700 cases of abuse and neglect of seniors across the state and more than 20 deaths that were linked to breakdowns in care.

A broader bill, House Bill 987, passed the House earlier this year and could win final approval during the restarted session.

Now in the Senate, it would significantly increase penalties for poor care.

It also would require:

  • Assisted living and memory care centers to have nurses on staff.
  • Special training for administrators who run assisted living and larger personal care homes, similar to the training nursing home administrators must already go through.
  • Facilities to disclose financial problems and ownership changes that could affect care. Personal care homes would also have to demonstrate they are financially viable.

STAT OF THE WEEK

8.9%

The tax rate customers in Atlanta now pay for using a ride-sharing company such as Uber or Lyft. It's among the highest ride-hailing taxes in the country.

Georgians used to not pay a sales tax for ride-sharing services, but that changed April 1, after Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law House Bill 276, giving the state the ability to collect levies from customers of internet- and app-based businesses, including Uber and Lyft.

Lawmakers want to replace the tax with a 50-cent flat fee, plus a 25-cent fee for shared rides that would also apply to taxi and limousine rides.

Proceeds from the fee, which would produce up to $40 million a year in revenue, would go to public transportation.

Senate Transportation Chairman Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, and House Transportation Chairman Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, have both said the legislation, House Bill 105, is a priority.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“This virus is serious — it’s brutal. I was sick for three weeks straight. I thought I was going to die.”

— State Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, one of at least five state senators who contracted COVID-19. The others are Sens. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta; Lester Jackson, D-Savannah; Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta; and Bruce Thompson, R-White. At least two members of the Georgia House, Reps. Matt Gambill, R-Cartersville, and Angelika Kausche, D-Johns Creek, also fell ill from the coronavirus.

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