Analysis: Legislative session ends with a campaign push for 2024 and 2026

GOP senators backed culture war measures to please their base, and House Republicans — concerned about winning races in a swing state — blocked them.
Gov. Brian Kemp enters the House of Representatives on Thursday to speak to its members on Sine Die, the last day of the 2024 legislative session. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp enters the House of Representatives on Thursday to speak to its members on Sine Die, the last day of the 2024 legislative session. (Arvin Temkar /

The end of Georgia’s legislative session last week left behind a slew of decisions for Gov. Brian Kemp and plenty of implications for the November vote and the already-developing campaigns for statewide races in 2026.

The 40-day session played out against the backdrop of upcoming May primaries and the November general election where all 180 House seats and 56 Senate spots are up for grabs, though only a handful are competitive.

The three-month span put on display the competing priorities of House and Senate Republicans, who clashed over red-meat proposals sought by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and his allies and were ultimately halted by House Speaker Jon Burns.

But Republicans were able to unite over other long-sought wish-list items, including new tax cuts, pay hikes for teachers and public employees in a record $36.1 billion budget, an expanded school voucher program and new immigration policies.

Democrats, meanwhile, failed to take advantage of the GOP infighting to force Republicans to embrace a Medicaid expansion after forcing a first-ever vote on the issue. Still, they could take solace they helped tank measures targeting LGBTQ rights.

Here are some of the takeaways:

The Senate’s agenda is a blueprint for the 2026 race.

Jones might as well have started his campaign for governor. He used the session to preview his agenda for a widely expected run to succeed a term-limited Kemp in two years.

Jones and the chamber he leads were on the forefront of culture war proposals, including new efforts to limit treatments for transgender youth, place a Clarence Thomas statue near the Capitol, create a MAGA-inspired license plate and attempt to revive “religious liberty” legislation that was so contentious it brought a veto in 2014.

State Senate Democratic Leader Gloria Butler and Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones share a laugh following the retiring Butler’s farewell speech. But Butler told the "Politically Georgia" podcast that the long-standing divide between the House and Senate seems “meaner than it used to be” after Jones’ election. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

House Republicans blocked each one, along with funding that could have been used to fulfill Jones’ pledge to pay teachers to arm themselves in schools. Burns described it as choosing “results” over politics.

But that doesn’t mean the lieutenant governor went home empty-handed. His push to roll back hospital regulations cleared both chambers this year after he retreated amid stiff backlash in 2023.

Measures that Jones and his allies championed to expand school vouchers and require parents to confirm their kids’ social media accounts also won approval in the House. And Jones signaled he wasn’t backing down from his 2024 agenda in 2025.

“These issues are a marathon, not a sprint,” Jones said. “And we’ll continue to build on our accomplishments year after year to enact policies that lift up the middle class and fight back against radical Democrats’ insanity.”

The Republican infighting is ratcheting up.

The Senate-House divide burst to the forefront again when each chamber rejected or ignored entirely its counterpart’s priorities.

Burns, a Republican from Newington, had pointed words about putting policies over politics, while GOP lawmakers in the Senate fussed about a House push to dub white shrimp the state’s official crustacean.

“The House is the place big ideas go to die,” one GOP Senate heavyweight said. A House Republican official, meanwhile, fired back: “Must be nice not to have to worry about general elections in a swing state.”

House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, said Republicans in his chamber were choosing "results" over politics when they blocked a push by GOP senators on a culture war issue. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

The back-and-forth is nothing new in a state Capitol long accustomed to a rift between the two chambers, where legendary grudges and long-standing fights between leaders have been the norm. Still, veterans sensed something different about this dynamic.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, lamented that the acrimony seems “meaner than it used to be” after Jones’ election.

“With the changing of the guard and people in charge of the Senate, it makes a huge difference in their way of thinking,” she told the ”Politically Georgia” podcast.

“It’s supposed to be about the people and not about us,” Butler said. “But it’s more about the members it seems and not about the people.”

The GOP still scored plenty of election-year wins.

While red-meat bills went belly up, Republicans unified behind a host of other measures they hope will pay dividends in November.

The GOP got behind tax cuts, building projects and new requirements for law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration agents that got traction after the killing of a 22-year-old nursing student on the University of Georgia campus.

Culture war issues that were aimed at riling up the GOP activist base — but could have cost Republicans support in swing districts — went nowhere. And the House backed a bipartisan resolution to protect in vitro fertilization treatment hours before the session ended.

State representatives throw paper in the air last week to celebrate the end of the legislative session. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Democrats, meanwhile, failed to squeeze everything they could out of the GOP infighting, even after striking an apparent deal with Senate Republicans over a hospital regulation rollback in exchange for a vote to expand Medicaid. That left them seething.

“We’re all the sum total of the choices that we make,” said Democratic state Rep. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek physician. “And this session, yet again, Georgia Republicans chose to look at patients in need with an obvious solution in reach and they chose to do nothing.”

Medicaid expansion may have its moment in 2025.

In private conversations and public statements, Republican lawmakers made clear they do not have limitless patience with Kemp’s limited Medicaid expansion.

And as the session ended, Burns was among the leaders who said lawmakers aim to study the Arkansas-style “private option” program as an alternative if Kemp’s program that ties eligibility to work and academic requirements doesn’t gain traction.

There are a few reasons why, starting with the lackluster embrace of Kemp’s plan. It has only attracted about 3,500 uninsured enrollees through March out of an estimated 370,000 who could apply. And it has cost taxpayers at least $26 million, with more than 90% of that money going toward administrative and consulting costs.

Republican state senators vote to reject a proposal to fully expand Medicaid in Georgia during a meeting of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. Two Republicans, however, sided with Democrats on the measure that failed to advance when the committee deadlocked at 7-7. AJC/Michelle Baruchman

icon to expand image

If President Joe Biden wins a second term, Republicans concede his administration is likely to block an extension of Kemp’s plan when it expires next year. And some senior Republicans hope to undercut Democratic criticism of Georgia health policy by joining 40 other states that have already expanded Medicaid ahead of the 2026 vote — an issue that polls show is widely popular among voters.

Jones and other Republicans took pains not to criticize Kemp’s plan while also cracking the door open for alternatives. State Rep. Butch Parrish, the chair of the agenda-setting Rules Committee, pointed to a new commission that will be studying several options, including the Arkansas waiver, throughout the year.

“We’ll be examining all these issues,” he said. “How best to deliver the health care, how best to do it economically, how best to get it to all of Georgians.”

Sports gambling might have a path.

The latest push to legalize sports betting ended in failure, again. But state Rep. Ron Stephens said the “closer than ever” coalition behind the initiative has learned valuable lessons.

The Savannah Republican thanked Senate and House leaders for rallying behind the measure even in an election year.

The Senate approved separate measures to allow sports betting to become law through a constitutional amendment or Kemp’s signature, but both were bottled up in the House.

“While House leadership ultimately decided against bringing it to the floor,” Stephens said, “the fact so many legislators were willing to take the vote shows there is a very clear path next year to revisit.”

Jones, for his part, said it would continue to be a priority as he urged lawmakers to agree on how to spend the more than $100 million annually it’s expected to generate. He told ”The Clay & Buck Show” it’s “like picking up dollars in the street.”

“It’s something that’s going on everywhere. You’ve got friends that do it. I’ve got friends that do it,” Jones said. “And the only thing that we’re not doing as a state is we’re not regulating it, and we’re not collecting state dollars from it.”

Note: This item was ripped and expanded from the P.G. AM newsletter.

Sports betting failed to advance again in the General Assembly, but its supporters remain hopeful. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones signaled he will continue to back it, describing its revenue potential — which some estimates put at $100 million a year — as "like picking up dollars in the street." (AP Photo/John Locher)

icon to expand image