Georgia lieutenant governor shelves plan to study systemic inequality

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's office said budget constraints and a lack of interest were responsible for his decision not to appoint a state Senate committee to study systemic inequality. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's office said budget constraints and a lack of interest were responsible for his decision not to appoint a state Senate committee to study systemic inequality. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

As politicians and governments across the country respond to protests over racial injustice, Georgia’s lieutenant governor’s office said budget constraints and lack of interest stopped it from appointing a panel that in the coming months would have studied systemic inequality.

State Sen. Bruce Thompson filed a resolution to create the committee when lawmakers returned to the Capitol in June — after weeks of protests across the nation in response to footage of George Floyd dying when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 10 minutes.

Senate Resolution 959 authorized the creation of a committee to study systemic “inequalities that are suffered by identifiable groups of persons.”

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s chief of staff, John Porter, called the resolution “awfully vague.”

“We weren’t sure what direction the issue could take,” Porter said. “At the end of the day, these matters deserve a much greater platform than a study committee in a compressed time frame.”

The legislative session ended in June, months after the time it typically adjourns, after being suspended at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia.

State Sen. Tonya Anderson, a Lithonia Democrat and co-sponsor of the resolution, said the state needs to study the issue now.

“This is a priority, and it should be a concern in our state as well as our country,” Anderson said. “To not choose this committee as a priority is very telling.”

Porter said the office opted to appoint only five of the 10 study committees approved by senators, citing budget constraints.

Lawmakers participating in committees can receive $173 per day for expenses plus the costs of travel. Study committees typically meet three to five times, at most, during a fall review. If five lawmakers were appointed, for instance, and met four times, it could cost the state about $3,500 plus mileage. The Senate has an annual budget of about $11 million.

Sometimes such study committees produce legislation that is considered in the next General Assembly session. Sometimes not.

The five panels Duncan appointed will study law enforcement reform, educating adults, coin-operated gaming machines, the music industry and surgical smoke evacuation systems, which are used to let medical professionals know whether the gas emitted when performing surgeries is too toxic.

In addition to Thompson’s panel, Duncan also didn’t appoint members to committees that would study things such as the state’s county boards of election and voter registration, and alcohol franchise laws.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Gloria Butler said she was taken aback to hear the lieutenant governor’s office say there was not enough interest in serving on the committee.

“It seems to me that because of the times that we are living in, with all of this racial unrest being so prevalent, why would we not take up this committee?” the Stone Mountain Democrat said. “Perhaps this current administration needs to open their eyes a little wider, because apparently they’re not seeing what’s happening in our state.”

Porter said Thompson has created a task force to study the issue on his own, separate from the Senate. Thompson, a Republican from White, declined to comment for this article.

Porter also said only two senators other than Thompson volunteered to serve on the panel.

Two Black legislators — Anderson and and state Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah — told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they urged the lieutenant governor’s office to have the issue studied this year. Jackson, who didn’t contact the lieutenant governor’s office until after he spoke with the AJC, said senators would volunteer their time, so it wouldn’t cost the state anything.

The truth of the matter is a study committee doesn’t have to cost us anything,” Jackson said. “The concern is so deep and so great that it is my firm belief many legislators will step up to the plate and not submit to be reimbursed for the committee meetings.”

Systemic inequality has become a focus of many local and state government bodies across the country as people grapple with the images they’ve seen of Black people being killed by whites.

In Georgia, footage went viral in May of three white men following Ahmaud Arbery — a Black man — through a Brunswick-area neighborhood before Arbery was shot and killed. All three have been charged with murder. One of the men, Travis McMichael, is accused of calling Arbery an “f------ n-----” after shooting him.

The footage spurred Georgia to pass hate-crimes legislation, which strengthens the punishment of those who commit crimes against certain people based on bias. Duncan put pressure on Senate Republicans to pass the legislation after they had not considered the bill that the House passed more than a year earlier.

Several Republican lawmakers said during the debate over the bill that Arbery’s killing forced them to confront the racism that occurs in Georgia.

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