Georgia’s Senate is a launchpad for culture war legislation

Georgia Lt. Gov. Burt Jones speaks at a rally for Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Georgia Lt. Gov. Burt Jones speaks at a rally for Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar /

Democratic state Rep. Omari Crawford seemed like a deer in headlights when his suicide-prevention measure was swiftly rewritten by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Senate Republicans to become a grab bag of culture war measures.

“It’s quite a bit,” Republican state Sen. Clint Dixon quipped this week, describing an overhaul destined to draw national headlines and stir intense debate.

To Democratic state Sen. Sonya Halpern, the overhaul was no laughing matter — an emblem, she said, of how “contentious kinds of conversations” were increasingly emerging in the GOP-run Senate.

Time and again this session, Jones and his Senate allies have been the engines behind provocative legislation designed to gin up conservative votes in the May primaries and November general election.

As the legislative session nears its end, the Republican-controlled Senate has pingponged between seemingly minor debates over MAGA-inspired license plates and broader culture war feuds that revive decades-old fights.

And Jones has embraced his chamber’s role even if it means picking fights with Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns or irritating Gov. Brian Kemp, who has taken an arm’s-length approach to most legislative debates.

Jones’ agenda this session, too, could serve as a blueprint of a potential campaign to succeed Kemp in Georgia’s top job.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, right, has embraced his chamber’s role in pushing measures meant to stir up conservative voters this election year, even if it means picking fights with Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns, left, or irritating Gov. Brian Kemp. (Arvin Temkar/

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Senate Republicans muscled through religious freedom legislation that has spurred debate for decades despite deep concerns from an alliance of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Jones and his deputies launched inquiries into the election policies of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger after he refused then-President Donald Trump’s call to “find” him enough votes to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election in Georgia.

They also created a panel to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis after she brought charges of election interference against Trump and some of his Republican allies.

While both chambers have pursued bipartisan measures to incentivize the purchase of gun safes, Senate Republicans also pushed a five-day sales tax holiday on guns and ammunition to coincide with the start of deer-hunting season.

And Senate leaders took a surprisingly confrontational stance against an effort by Burns to increase the state standard homestead exemption.

“I think we can do more than this,” Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said before his panel dramatically increased the homestead exemption hike that Burns was touting.

To Democrats, these stances are a sign that the 2026 campaigns for statewide offices have already arrived.

“You have lots of folks who are eyeing higher office in our chamber, so they are forced to the right in anticipation of competitive primaries that have gotten even more extreme,” said state Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “because issues important to everyday Georgians get placed on the back burner as a result of it.”

State Sen. Jason Anavitarte, one of the top Republicans in the Senate, shrugged off the criticism.

“We are just talking about the issues that average Georgians want: A better economy, personal rights and more freedom,” he said.

Jones’ allies have privately mocked House bills promoting the white shrimp industry and Georgia cornbread that they see as distractions. Publicly, the lieutenant governor has embraced his confrontational approach.

“My goal is to spend every minute of the legislative session making a difference for Georgia families. There’s no time to be timid,” he said. “I’ll keep fighting to take long-overdue conservative reforms across the finish line.”

Burt’s blessing

It’s not unusual for Senate-House relations to grow tense and even toxic in the final days of the legislative session.

Nor is it out of the ordinary for the Senate to push more conservative legislation than the House, which in recent years has tempered some of the most controversial bills coming from across the hall.

But the range of culture war legislation emanating from the Senate this year stands out, along with ever-present reminders that Jones is working to curry favor with Georgia’s formidable MAGA base.

A devoted Trump ally, Jones has not been shy about his embrace of the former president’s brand of politics.

He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he gave his blessing to a range of efforts designed to punish Willis for bringing the election-interference trial against Trump. Jones, who served as a GOP elector who tried to cast Georgia’s electoral votes for Trump in 2020 even though Biden had won, could face charges in the probe.

And since taking office last year, Jones has seemed to relish stoking debates. He let a doomed Buckhead cityhood measure reach a Senate vote despite Kemp’s opposition.

He proposed a state-funded stipend to encourage teachers to carry guns in classrooms, and he included $5 million in his latest budget proposal that could help finance the program if local officials approve.

And the Senate has pushed legislation to eliminate automatic voter registration, drawing a veto threat from Kemp, who implemented the policy in 2016 when he was secretary of state.

‘Lack of respect’

Not everything Jones has done has ignited GOP activists. Mack Parnell of the Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition praised Jones for “courageously leading the way for religious freedom” and a host of other measures but dinged him for his out-front support of sports betting.

“While disagreement remains over the push for the expansion of predatory gambling,” Parnell said, “we appreciate the Senate’s willingness to pass bold and commonsense legislation for Georgia families.”

This week, the focus on socially conservative legislation ratcheted up when Senate lawmakers melded together a trio of controversial proposals that stalled earlier this year. One would ban transgender athletes from playing sports, another would prevent sex education in schools before the sixth grade.

Outraged Democrats quickly pushed back, leading to an extraordinary exchange over the sex education rules between Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent and Dixon, who chairs the Senate Education and Youth Committee.

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

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

Parent pressed further: “So you think you can talk to a girl about menstruation without touching on any aspect of human reproduction?”

“That’s a great question,” Dixon responded. “I’ve got two daughters. One is currently going through puberty, and my wife and I have been able to successfully — with her guidance and her leadership, my wife’s leadership — have had those conversations with her without talking about reproduction.”

On Wednesday, as Parent waded through an evening of committee votes involving more last-minute changes to weighty policy bills, she had one takeaway.

“This just shows so much lack of respect for the voters,” she said.

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said some of the positions Republicans in the Senate have taken on culture war issues just show “so much lack of respect for the voters.” (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Slamming the House

The Senate isn’t only fighting the rest of the Capitol on culture war issues.

Two weeks ago the Senate Finance Committee took up one of Burns’ top priorities: raising the state homestead exemption on property from $2,000 to $4,000. The higher the exemption, the lower a homeowner’s property taxes.

But the committee called out House Bill 1019 as a weak attempt to address the problem of skyrocketing property values, which are leading to big tax bills. Senators said the increase would only affect homeowners in one-third of the state’s counties because the rest already have higher exemptions. And in counties that have $2,000 exemptions now, homeowners would only see a $20-$30 tax break.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said, “I am concerned if we pass this, that this becomes the bill that everybody says, ‘Hey, we did something.’ "

House officials were not amused at the treatment of Burns’ bill, which didn’t get a vote.

Then, a week later, the committee increased the exemption in the bill to $10,000 without an accounting of how much it will cost cities, counties and school districts in terms of lost revenue.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said Senate Republicans have made "some astounding moves" on policy issues this session. “It’s safe to say the gloves are off and there are a lot of egregious things being said and done down here,” Orrock said. (Arvin Temkar /


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“I would say there have been some astounding moves in the Senate with big policy implications,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a member of the committee. “It’s safe to say the gloves are off and there are a lot of egregious things being said and done down here.”

House Majority Whip James Burchett, R-Waycross, puts the difference between the House and Senate in part down to the size of their constituencies.

“We have members that represent smaller districts and are a little bit closer to the people,” Burchett said. “We are talking to folks every day and taking up issues they are telling us they need help on.”

But Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, said there’s more to it than that. He called the GOP majority in the Senate “more Trumpy” than ever.

“What we got back from the Senate seems to be a lot more social type issues, and even when they are on education, there seems to be a hidden agenda,” he said.

“The Senate has always had its challenges, but they had people there to moderate things,” Wilkerson added. “I think they’re losing that and you’re getting more Colton Moores.”

Moore, an ultraconservative Republican, has been kicked out of his own caucus in the Senate and was banned from the House floor last week for making disparaging remarks in the Senate about the late David Ralston on the same day the former Republican speaker’s portrait was unveiled in the House.

“A lot of games are getting played at the end. We definitely have to pay attention,” Wilkerson said. “The Senate’s gonna Senate.”