A few minutes after Gov. Brian Kemp ended a showcase speech to the state Legislature focused on a “new era” of mostly consensus-driven policies, he walked across the street to address some of Georgia’s most prominent Christian conservatives.
After delivering a string of applause lines about his economic stances, Kemp turned to the top item on the wish list of many in the audience: the question of whether he’d push for more stringent abortion limits after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“We’re going to continue to value and support life at all stages in our state,” Kemp said, shifting to measures that aimed to streamline adoption and improve foster care. “We haven’t just been talking about that. We’ve been doing something about it.”
With election campaigns behind them — and Republicans still in firm control of the Georgia Statehouse — GOP leaders signal they want to take a breather from the sharp clashes over social issues that were dominant during parts of Kemp’s first term in office.
Still, there’s a tried-and-true pattern in Georgia of political leaders promising a truce in the culture wars — and then taking up divisive, headline-grabbing issues anyways. But Kemp and other Republicans indicate bipartisan-friendly measures are a priority this legislative session.
In speeches and interviews, the governor and the state’s two new legislative leaders — Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns — laid out agendas devoid of calls for new abortion restrictions, rollbacks of firearm regulations or a revival of “religious liberty” measures.
None have made forging a new Buckhead city a part of their agenda. And they haven’t expressed interest in reigniting debate over LGBTQ rights a year after passing legislation that banned transgender girls from competing in women’s sports in public high schools.
Instead, each has laid out policy initiatives laced with calls to toughen criminal penalties, boost education funding, fund new tax rebates, add more affordable housing and improve high-tech training for the spree of economic development projects taking root in Georgia.
“We’ve got to improve our workforce development and help drive more economic opportunities and growth to the state,” Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve had a lot of success in the last 10 years, and we need to continue that success.”
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
That aligns with an AJC poll released this week that shows many Georgia voters would prefer their elected officials work together rather than squabble.
Some 54% of Georgia voters say the state’s elected officials should value the art of compromise to find solutions, as opposed to roughly one-third who want politicians to “stand on principle” even if it means gridlock.
The shift from culture wars presents a conundrum for Democrats, who acknowledge that they agree with key parts of the GOP agenda even as they push for more expansive policies, such as deploying Georgia’s record $6.6 billion surplus to finance heftier pay increases for teachers, setting the state’s minimum wage at $15 and fully funding Medicaid expansion.
“We all agree on the desired outcome, but we have very different ideas about the path that will take us there,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, one of the chamber’s top Democrats.
“It surely won’t be by putting relatively few dollars in Georgians’ pockets with tax cuts for some and one-time refunds,” Parent said. “This is like expecting a car to drive several hundred miles when it is running on fumes.”
The strategy also could set the GOP leaders on a collision course with conservative legislators and activists who want the party to use its majority to take more muscular steps, such as an outright ban on abortion and a fresh push to lift gun regulations.
“Any member can bring forth legislation at any time,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican. “So we’ll see if and what gets filed.”
Abortion may be the biggest flashpoint. In one of the most divisive legislative votes in recent state history, the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2019 narrowly adopted restrictions that ban most abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
After a lower court ruling overturned the law, the state’s top court recently reinstated the ban until an appeal is resolved. Now with a slimmer majority, state Republicans could try to adopt a new version of the law — but Kemp and other GOP leaders would prefer to wait.
“I support that legislation and continue to stand by it. But we also know that it has been challenged and it’s back before our state Supreme Court,” Burns said, adding: “We’re going to wait for the state Supreme Court, and then we’ll move forward on something if we need to.”
Georgia voters were split on how restrictive access to abortion should be, though almost half said the state should make it easier to get the procedure. About 24% of respondents in the AJC poll said regulations should stay the way they are, and an additional 21% support more limits.
Some lawmakers last year pushed legislation to impose new regulations on abortion pills by requiring women to first get an in-person exam from a physician and ban them from being sent through the mail. Others lawmakers want an outright ban on the procedure.
Georgia’s 2019 law allows later abortions in cases of rape, incest, if the life of the woman is in danger or in instances of “medical futility,” when a fetus would not be able to survive. A police report is required in order to obtain a later abortion if the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest.
State Rep. Charlice Byrd, a Woodstock Republican, has said she plans to introduce legislation that would amend the Georgia Constitution to grant “personhood,” a term used to describe the effort to grant rights to an embryo or fetus at conception and would effectively make all abortions illegal.
“It is my right to carry legislation at any time that I want,” she said when asked about Burns’ desire to let the court process play out on the 2019 abortion law. “He can tell me ‘no,’ but there’s a whole lot of people out here that want this to happen.”
Betting and Buckhead
Gambling legislation has also proved to be divisive, not only between Democrats and Republicans but within the GOP as well. For much of the past decade, lawmakers have clashed over whether to allow horse racing, casinos or online sports betting.
Legislators seemed primed last year to allow betting on professional sports, but the effort tanked amid a fight over whether the new tax revenue should fund needs-based scholarships.
And sports betting has the support of many Georgia voters, according to a recent AJC poll. About 49% of those polled said they either support or strongly support sports betting. About 37% of respondents strongly oppose or somewhat oppose the practice.
Another sharp debate involves the ongoing divide over Buckhead cityhood, a movement that is driven by frustration over Atlanta’s high crime rate. Last year, legislative leaders effectively shut down debate over the Atlanta divorce early in the session.
The recent violent clashes surrounding Atlanta’s proposed public safety center have sharpened focus on law-and-order issues, which were the focus of Kemp’s address this week to legislators.
There are no signs that top Republicans are rallying behind the split even though Jones, an early supporter, is now in position to push it through. He said he won’t lead the charge, but he also didn’t disavow the effort.
“I’m not going to shut down the conversation if a senator brings it forward because they have legitimate issues,” Jones said. “We’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t allow the process to try to play out.”
Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution