Two jobs recruits abandon Georgia over ‘religious liberty’ debate

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The legislative session is over, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporters will continue to track the “religious liberty” and other bills sent to the governor for his signature, as well as the latest news from metro and state government.

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Amid warnings of the economic risks from Georgia’s “religious liberty” legislation, state officials have acknowledged the fallout is underway.

An expanding list of corporate chieftains and Hollywood heavyweights have urged Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the controversial bill and threatened to pull investments from Georgia if he doesn’t. Now, though, there’s hard evidence that the debate may have cost the state regardless of whether he signs the legislation.

A March 19 email exchange between the top aides to Deal and House Speaker David Ralston, a supporter of the measure, described the fallout from the legislation, House Bill 757, since it earned approval from the both chambers of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“We received official notification this morning that Georgia was dropped from contention from two pending economic projects we had been working at gdec prior to any decision being made on the bill,” wrote Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff, referring to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

“Both projects cited Hb 757 as why they were removing Georgia from consideration.”

He was responding to an email from Ralston top aide Spiro Amburn that included a copy of talking points about the measure describing the criticism as “exaggerations or misinformation.” The emails were obtained through an Open Records Act request.

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. Big-name companies, including Apple, Disney and Time Warner, have called on Deal to reject the measure, and more than a dozen conventions have threatened to pull out of Georgia. The NFL released a statement critical of the bill and indicated its passage would factor into Atlanta's bid for an upcoming Super Bowl.

Deal has not said whether he would support the measure, which brings an element of suspense to the 40-day bill-signing period that began Friday and ends May 3. Some lawmakers have promised payback if Deal rejects the measure by calling for a veto override, which would require two-thirds majority votes in both chambers.

“I’ll try to act as expeditiously as possible, especially on major pieces of legislation,” the governor said a few hours before another legislative session ended early Friday. “We don’t have a timeframe.”

His office has been flooded with calls and emails from supporters and opponents of the measure, including pleas from what Deal calls “generational constituents” - longtime Georgia residents - who lobbied him to support the measure.

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

Amburn, Ralston’s top staffer, responded swiftly to Riley’s note about the economic development recruits driven from Georgia by the debate. Within about 20 minutes, he sent this one-line answer:

“All the more reason for quick action one way or another.”