Georgia legislative session ends with last-minute flurry of tax-cut, gender bills

House members toss paper in the air early Tuesday at the conclusion of the legislative session on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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House members toss paper in the air early Tuesday at the conclusion of the legislative session on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

No idea is dead and no General Assembly session is over until the men standing at the front of the House and Senate chambers slam their gavels and yell “Sine Die.” That was never more clear than it was around 12:15 Tuesday morning.

Two hours earlier it looked — on the surface — like the chambers were slow-walking the session to a tame conclusion.

Then in rapid succession, lawmakers gave final passage to a $30.2 billion budget, passed a bill limiting how race is taught in k-12 schools with an amendment dealing with transgender kids playing sports, got yet another election bill through in response to Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 and topped the night off by raising their own pensions.

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And then lawmakers left for home, most preparing to run for reelection or higher office with party primaries less than two months away.

The final few hours had a little bit of everything typical of the last day of a session: plenty of waiting around for deals to be made; strategizing between leaders of the Republican majority; slapping one bill onto another; lobbyists crowding around screens in the halls watching the proceedings; and lawmakers voting quickly on measures described only by a bill number, minus discussion of any content.

At one point the description of a proposed bill to expand gambling was read to the House and there was an audible gasp from the crowd. House members were quickly informed the gambling provision had been stripped from the bill.

The last-minute vote on an amended bill to create a school athletics oversight committee to determine whether transgender students should be allowed to participate in high school sports that align with their gender identity particularly irked Democrats because they had helped stall stand-alone legislation on the same subject.

“The passage of the anti-trans student bill last night after midnight illustrates all that is wrong with our politics,” Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, tweeted Tuesday.

The only certainty about Day 40 of the session was that the budget would pass because it’s the one bill the General Assembly legally has to approve. But even that did not win final approval until 11 p.m. because it got caught up in political maneuvering on other legislation.

Republican leaders didn’t want to hit the campaign trail without passing a tax cut, so in the final hour the House and Senate approved a measure to gradually drop the state’s income tax rate from 5.75% to 4.99%.

Under a rewritten House Bill 1437, a compromise was reached to lower the rate to 5.49% in 2024, stepping down gradually until it reaches 4.99% in 2029.

Standard exemptions would rise gradually as well. The standard exemption would go from $2,700 for single filers to $12,000. For married couples filing jointly, it would go from $7,400 to $24,000.

“It’s simple, it’s fair and it allows hardworking Georgians to keep more of their money,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire.

The original House bill would have saved taxpayers $1 billion a year. The final version could eventually save even more, but it would take several years.

In the waning minutes, the Republican majority passed legislation to limit how race is discussed in k-12 classrooms, but only after amending the bill to address transgender girls in sports. That brought an emotional response from Democrats.

The move got around a different bill that passed the Senate but did not get a hearing in the House. That bill, Senate Bill 435, would have required student athletes to play sports according to the gender on their birth certificate.

The General Assembly also approved a bill that would give the GBI authority to investigate election fraud complaints. Under the measure, Senate Bill 441, the GBI would be able to launch election inquiries and subpoena records on its own. Previously, the GBI assisted election investigators in the secretary of state’s office.

The measure — pushed by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge — was the latest effort to change election laws after the close 2020 presidential vote, when Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump in Georgia by about 12,000 votes.

The new state budget included nearly $580,000 for four GBI positions to investigate election complaints.

Georgia lawmakers couldn’t agree on a compromise medical marijuana bill late Monday that would have finally allowed businesses to grow and sell cannabis oil to registered patients. Without a bill, Georgia’s medical marijuana program remains stalled amid a drawn-out government process to authorize companies to manufacture the drug.

The last vote of the night, at 12:15 a.m. — 15 minutes after the traditional ending time for a session — came in the Senate as Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan were preparing to bring down their gavels. If signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, it will increase the pensions of part-time lawmakers 38% and will at least quadruple what Ralston will receive.