OPINION: How a rookie Democrat’s bill became a GOP ‘Christmas tree’

Democratic state Rep. Omari Crawford sits in class at the Senate Education and Youth Committee getting schooled in how bills are torn up and put back together.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Democratic state Rep. Omari Crawford sits in class at the Senate Education and Youth Committee getting schooled in how bills are torn up and put back together.

It was like Christmas morning for state Rep. Omari Crawford.

That is, if the first-term Democratic legislator was a resident of Whoville, the Dr. Seuss village that got looted by the Grinch.

I refer to Christmas because Crawford got stuck with a so-called Christmas tree - state Capitol vernacular for legislation that gets loaded up with unwanted ornaments. Or, more precisely, seemingly dead bills are attached to a living organism so they can get second life.

You might say Crawford’s fellow legislators were adding to his bill, not taking. Yes, but by loading up his bill with some highly controversial GOP culture war issues — transgender kids in sports, school libraries, sex education and some language on charter schools — they pretty much smothered Crawford’s offering.

As this went down, Crawford looked like a kid watching bigger, meaner kids steal his bike.

Crawford, an attorney, had sponsored a suicide prevention bill about mental health and high school athletes. It was to compile information about mental health for athletes, coaches and parents.

HB1104 was his first bill as a legislator and important to him, a former high school sprinting champion from DeKalb County.

“This bill means a lot to me,” he told fellow legislators last month from the well of the state House. “As a former student athlete, I understand the pressures and anxiety that student athletes face.”

Georgia state Sen. Omari Crawford, D-Decatur, captures the state Senate's vote on a substitute of House Bill 1104, a measure that originally dealt with suicide prevention, but was radically overhauled in Senate committee by adding a number of other bills that had earlier failed to pass the Senate, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Atlanta. (Matthew Pearson/WABE via AP)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

It was a feel-good bill, one that both Rs and Ds could get behind. Who doesn’t want to help struggling kids?

It passed in the House 159-4, getting the kind of support that a resolution professing undying love for grandmas might get.

Being that it was Crawford’s first piece of legislation, fellow state reps started in on the tradition of needling Crawford in a good-natured way, asking why he wasn’t wearing track shoes.

But the real hazing was to come across the hall in the Senate, the one-time august chamber that now sometimes comes across like feeding time at the zoo. It occurred in the Education and Youth Committee, which was fitting, because he got a proper schooling in Legislative Trickery 101.

Last week, Crawford was in a House Judiciary Committee meeting when he got word his bill was going to get a hearing in the Senate education committee.

He had less than an hour to prepare for a big dose of sobering news. “I was informed that there was some language added,” he said. “It wasn’t ‘some’ language, it was 17 pages.”

I know Crawford is swift afoot. But his speed reading skills weren’t adept enough to absorb it all in the tight time frame.

In the Senate hearing, state Sen. Greg Dolezal started off saying he wanted to take out private schools from the bill’s language. Crawford said that might be hard because private schools also compete under the “GHSA umbrella” with public schools.

Senators vote in favor of House Bill 1104 on Day 39 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. The original bill, sponsored by Rep. Omari Crawford, D-Decatur, focused on mental health services for student athletes, but was amended with language from other bills involving gender and sex education. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Dolezal finally got to his concern: There might be some language sneaking in about transgenderism.

Then Sen. Clint Dixon, the committee chair, rolled through all the ornaments being added to the Christmas tree:

— parents can get emails when their kids check out books from the school library.

— sex education is prohibited before sixth grade and parents must to opt in for kids to receive it.

— state charters have authority to hire and fire teachers.

— biological boys are forbidden from competing in girls’ sports and changing in their locker rooms.

The latter would include private and public schools.

Dixon then noted that “each provision in this bill has been strongly supported by Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones.”

Jones would like to remove the “lieutenant” from his job title in the 2026 election for governor. Lots of other Republicans would like that job, too. He’s betting being the Trumpiest will get him there.

I’m only surprised Jones did not have senators add in a resolution commending Trump for being a handsome and dashing figure.

State Sen. Elena Parent, a DeKalb Dem, then got into an absurd exchange with Dixon:

“How are the schools supposed to talk about menstruation without talking about human reproduction, which is forbidden before sixth grade?” she asked.

“I am not a woman, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express,” Dixon quipped, referring to the advertisement on becoming an expert. “But I would say to the reproductive part of it, or whatnot, I don’t think that would align with sex education.”

Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Gwinnett, speaks in favor of House Bill 1104 on Day 39 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. The original bill, sponsored by Rep. Omari Crawford, D-Decatur, focused on mental health services for student athletes, but was amended with language from other bills involving gender and sex education. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Parent noted the inconsistency of her GOP colleagues. She noted they are requiring school boards to conduct hearings, hold public comment sessions and have a 45-day waiting period before enacting sex education, but they only gave Crawford an hour to respond to wholesale changes.

Then again, this is the body that passed the Guns Everywhere bill but doesn’t let firearms into the Capitol.

I checked with Crawford who seemed down after his legislative lesson.

“If you have an idea, then draft it into a bill and let us debate it and let it win or lose on its own merits,” he said of the sneakery.

He’s got a lot of legislative schooling to do.