Some of the state’s most contentious political topics are sidelined for now but could take center stage at a moment’s notice during the 2018 legislative session, which begins Monday.
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If that happens, it might not necessarily be the quiet year that some of the state’s leaders are hoping for.
With every state legislator up for re-election and several running for higher office, they could fan the flames of their most energetic supporters by pressing controversial topics, though other candidates would prefer a smooth 40 days of business so they can get back to campaigning.
“It will be the same issues as before, but maybe a more dramatic narration from some individuals because of the politics that’s going on,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain. “But you know, they’re playing politics every session, whether it’s an election or not. So it won’t be much different.”
Religious freedom efforts are perhaps the most controversial and enduring.
Already, four Republican candidates for governor have pledged to sign religious liberty legislation if they’re elected. Meanwhile, some Democrats see a narrow opening to relocate Confederate monuments or ban bump stocks like those used in the rapid-fire shootings Oct. 1 in Las Vegas.
Despite boycott threats, Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto in 2016 and legislators’ squabbling, those seeking stronger legal protections for religious believers will push the issue this year.
One religious liberty bill is already pending in the state Senate, but opponents say it would allow faith-based nonprofits and businesses to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
House Speaker David Ralston hopes to avoid revisiting the debate, saying similar legislation damaged economies in other states such as North Carolina and Indiana.
North Carolina lost the National Basketball Association’s 2017 all-star game over its “bathroom bill,” and Indiana’s religious freedom measure led to Salesforce.com and Angie’s List canceling expansion plans in that state.
Dozens of major companies including Apple, Time Warner and Walt Disney threatened boycotts in 2016 if Georgia adopted similar legislation.
“We can learn from our neighbors,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “There’s a whole other side to it that’s not very productive.”
But ardent supporters of religious liberty proposals are renewing their efforts for a fourth straight year.
They’re backing Senate Bill 233, which would extend the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to Georgia, which has already been done in 21 states. RFRA laws prohibit governments from restricting a person’s exercise of religion unless they show a “compelling government interest.”
“We’re not going away. We’re not going to say, ‘Oh darn, we lost our religious freedoms,’” said Virginia Galloway, a lobbyist for the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “This could be one of the issues that’s magnified in an election year.”
Whether religious liberty proposals move forward will depend in part on Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who as president of the Senate plays a major role in deciding which bills reach that chamber’s floor.
Cagle, a Republican candidate for governor who signed the pledge to sign a religious liberty bill if elected, has said he doesn’t believe it’s discriminatory, but he also wants to avoid repeating last year’s squabbles that derailed a bill to make adoptions more efficient.
The adoption legislation didn’t pass after a Senate committee amended it to give legal protection to taxpayer-funded adoption agencies that refuse to work with same-sex couples because of their religious convictions.
SB 233’s sponsor, state Sen. Marty Harbin, said legislators should take a stand and vote on the religious liberty measure. He doesn’t believe it would harm Georgia’s business-friendly reputation.
“They’ve got to make answers to their constituents, and I’ll do everything I can to push forward,” said Harbin, R-Tyrone. “It’s an election year and anything can happen.”
What isn’t expected to happen, though, is anything that would restrict access to guns and their accessories. State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, introduced a bill in November that would ban the sale and possession of bump stocks in reaction to a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October that left 58 dead and injured more than 500.
Henson said that while he believes the device should be illegal in Georgia, he doesn’t believe Oliver’s proposal will see the light of day.
“The Georgia Legislature has shown a true and real reluctance to take up any issue that regulates guns in a restrictive manner,” he said.
Ralston alluded to something similar during a pre-session press briefing Thursday, saying he hadn’t yet taken a close look at the bill. He also said he hadn’t heard of bump stocks until the shootings in Las Vegas.
“I don’t support legislation that restricts the citizens’ rights under the Second Amendment,” he said. “We’ll take a look at some things, and if my determination is that it’s restrictive, then I won’t support it.”
Ralston also doubled down on a stance he shared last month that allowing local governments to make decisions to remove or change Confederate monuments, as is being proposed in similar bills filed in the House and Senate, would be harmful to the state.
“The history of Georgia applies wherever you live in Georgia,” he said. “So to let different communities pick and choose the history of the state and what we’re going to memorialize, to me, seems to be divisive. I’m not a big fan of doing that.”
Henson said without Ralston’s support, the bill won’t go anywhere.
“There are some Republicans who would be willing to allow (legislation) to move forward,” he said. “But the speaker said he doesn’t believe that should be the law.”
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