Often considered the more conservative of the two legislative chambers, the Georgia Senate this election year is serving up political “red meat” to the Republican base.
Despite recent polling that showed a majority of Georgia voters, including many Republican voters, are not interested in “culture wars” legislation that addresses topics such as abortion and handguns, several state senators are making it a priority. And some of the hot-button GOP measures are being fast-tracked for quick passage.
While every lawmaker is up for election this year, many of the most conservative measures are coming from Republicans who are running for statewide office. And though the bills may make it through the upper chamber, their futures are less certain in the House, which in recent history has stalled and stopped some of the Senate’s most controversial proposals.
Charles Bullock, a longtime political scientist at the University of Georgia, said it’s been a consistent strategy for conservative lawmakers running for higher office to try to prove just how conservative they are when facing a primary election.
“Most voters don’t spend their days and nights thinking about politics,” he said. “They’re living their day-to-day lives. To be picked up by their antenna, (campaign positions) may need to be especially loud or a bit more extreme to rise above the daily clamor of their lives.”
Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Gainesville Republican running against a Senate colleague in the party primary for lieutenant governor, has filed a handful of bills that have strong support among the GOP base, including a measure to eliminate the state income tax and another that would require law enforcement to check the citizenship status of people who have been arrested or detained during a traffic stop.
Miller also proposed putting a referendum on the November ballot asking voters whether the Georgia Constitution should be changed to explicitly ban people who aren’t citizens from voting. State law already limits voting to U.S. citizens, but a constitutional amendment would have prevented the Georgia General Assembly from someday passing a bill permitting noncitizens to participate in elections.
The effort sailed through the legislative process but failed when it hit the Senate floor on the fifth day of the session. The measure, Senate Resolution 363, needed approval from two-thirds of the Senate to pass the chamber, and Republicans, while a majority, make up less than two-thirds of the membership.
Miller’s campaign manager, Neil Bitting, said the senator’s legislation is in line with his “staunchly conservative record” over more than a decade in the Senate.
“He’s led on tax cuts, a strong anti-illegal immigration law, the ‘heartbeat bill,’ expansion of Second Amendment rights and religious liberty,” Bitting said. “Yes, he’s also running for lieutenant governor this year, but his conservative principles were well established long before that.”
Another proposal expected to move quickly through the Senate is legislation filed Thursday that pushes back on the decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow women with a prescription to obtain the abortion pill through the mail.
The bill, Senate Bill 456 — sponsored by state Sen. Bruce Thompson, a Republican from White who is running for labor commissioner — is expected to swiftly move through committee this week, anti-abortion advocates say. The Georgia Life Alliance, an anti-abortion group that worked on the legislation, sent an email Friday saying the measure was crafted with “a coalition of pro-life Senators led by our good friends, Senator Bruce Thompson and Senator Butch Miller.”
Thompson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Senate is also expected to advance legislation this session that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has made a priority, including the permit-less concealed carry of handguns and limitations on how issues of race are taught in schools.
The governor is in a stiff GOP primary fight for reelection, facing Donald Trump-endorsed former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
Senate Bill 319, which would remove the licensing requirement for Georgians who want to carry a concealed handgun, passed a Senate committee last week. And legislation addressing “critical race theory” was recently introduced by Kemp’s floor leader, state Sen. Bo Hatchett, a first-term Cornelia Republican.
Kemp’s office has said neither bill originated with him, but the governor has said he supports passing permit-less carry legislation and will back a bill to stop the “divisive ideology” of critical race theory in schools.
Whether any of the proposals become law remains to be seen. For instance, Miller’s bill to eliminate the state income tax almost certainly won’t go anywhere, if for no other reason than he doesn’t say how the state would replace the more than 50% of revenue that now comes from state income taxes.
Bullock also said House Speaker David Ralston doesn’t appear to have plans to run for higher office, so he only has to answer to the voters in his Blue Ridge-based district.
“(Ralston) doesn’t have to show that he is more committed to guns or abortion restrictions or anything,” Bullock said. “He can — and I’m not sure that this is necessarily the case — but he can look at what is best for the good of the party in the long term.
“Georgia is a changing state. That’s probably something Ralston ruminates over,” Bullock said. “But if you’re running for higher office, you have a much foreshortened outlook. It’s about what’s going to get to the voters in May.”