OPINION: What happened to the Clarence Thomas statue, the rabies bill, and other Capitol ideas?

03/31/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Sam Watson (R-Moultrie), second from right, is surrounded by his legislator peers before presenting HB 477 during Sine Die, legislative day 40, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. HB 477 passed the House Chambers. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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03/31/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Sam Watson (R-Moultrie), second from right, is surrounded by his legislator peers before presenting HB 477 during Sine Die, legislative day 40, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. HB 477 passed the House Chambers. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The last hours of the 2022 Georgia legislative session were something to see Monday night at the Capitol. Lobbyists paced outside the 3rd floor House and Senate chambers. Lawmakers huddled inside over last-minute bills. And time ticked by with some of the biggest ticket items of the year still unfinished at 11 p.m.

Within a span of 75 minutes, the House and Senate suddenly ran through items on its must-pass list: An across-the-board tax cut, approval of the state’s $30.2 billion budget with new teacher pay raises; a bill to give the GBI authority to lead elections investigations; a ban on teaching nine “divisive topics” in Georgia schools; and the seeds of a transgender sports ban.

But just as important as the bills that Republicans did pass were the once headline-grabbing items that they left on the sidelines.

Some of the most audacious turned out to be election-year message bills, with no real chance of becoming law.

That includes state Sen. Butch Miller’s bill to eliminate drop boxes for absentee voters. With a GOP primary for lieutenant governor waiting for Miller in May, another elections restriction is popular with the GOP activists he needs to support him. But beyond that, the bill had no real constituency.

Abortion was another high-profile conservative issue that failed to pass.

The abortion pill restriction bill, Senate Bill 456, drew major opposition from OB-GYNs, who told a Senate hearing that almost none of the reasoning behind the bill had any basis in fact, including a provision that would have required doctors to tell a woman she can see “the remains of her unborn child in the process of completing the abortion.”

The bill passed the Senate committee with all Republicans voting yes. But unlike so many other hot-button issues, from Critical Race Theory to transgender sports to masks in schools, the narrow abortion restriction fell off the list of top priorities as the session wound down.

Another conservative favorite that stalled out was the proposal from state Sen. Jason Anavitarte to erect a statue on the Capitol grounds of Justice Clarence Thomas.

Although the Senate passed the bill after a fiery, emotional debate, Republicans in the House didn’t think the potential internal damage to their chamber was worth the payoff.

Democrats, especially Black members, had made their personal opposition to the idea clear.

“It is not that we have a problem that he’s a conservative or Republican,” state Sen. Nikki Merritt said. “We think he’s a hypocrite and a traitor.”

That Ginni Thomas’s Jan. 6th text messages to the White House have been in the news recently didn’t help the Thomas statue cause, either.

If I was giving superlatives to failed legislation at the Capitol this year, I’d give Biggest Flame-Out to the Buckhead City effort, the movement whose backers promised almost once a week “Big news coming at the Capitol!!!” only to be followed by silence in the House and Senate.

After getting a “Big News Coming!!” alert one Sunday night, I reached out to the senator whom I’d been told would be introducing a Buckhead City bill the next day. When I called the senator for details, he had no idea what I was talking about.

The Buckhead City group never made their case to lawmakers , let alone to voters.

The Charlie Brown Football Award this year would go to the perennial effort to legalize gaming in Georgia, which again failed to pass. One lobbyist for the gaming industry lamented Monday night that he felt like the Peanuts character, fooled again by Lucy and the lawmakers who said, no really, this might be the year gaming could pass in the Capitol.

Despite growing cultural acceptance of the idea among Republicans, especially the ones who bet on UGA football games on Saturday, the obstacle to gaming in Georgia was a lack of consensus about what to do with proceeds from the effort. There was no new HOPE scholarship idea to galvanize support, nor was there a Gov. Zell Miller figure willing to spend nearly all of this political capital to make it happen.

Many stalled bills fell under the rubric of hair-brained nonsense. You should sleep well tonight knowing that the Georgia Legislature did not take its opportunity to pass House Bill 1000, a bill from state Rep. Stan Gunter that would have made the rabies vaccine for dogs and cats optional.

Gunter said he drafted the legislation after a constituent worried that the vaccine could kill her dog. But the bill never got past the House Agriculture Committee and multiple veterinarians who reminded members that rabies has no cure and is usually fatal once symptoms begin.

The most frustrating failure for lawmakers in both parties was a bill to fix the state’s stalled medical marijuana program, which originally passed seven years ago, and inexplicably failed Monday by a single vote in the Senate.

“I’m at a loss on that. I mean, how long are these people gonna have to wait?” House Speaker David Ralston told reporters after the bill died early Tuesday morning. “And so you know, I hope the families of Georgia know, thatwe gave it our best shot. And so, you know, the blame is [with the Senate] over there as far as I’m concerned.”

Likewise, HB 109 from state Rep. Health Clark would extend the statute of limitations for victims of child abuse. It had passed the full House three times before hitting a brick wall again late Monday night in the Senate, which refused to bring it up for debate.

With the 2022 session finished now, the policymakers will go back to the drawing board. Efforts to finally get make THC oil available for sick children will continue, as will the advocates behind HB 109.

The message bills, even dead and over, will serve their purposes on the campaign trail.

And Georgia voters will decide who deserves to go back to the General Assembly for the 2023 session, when they’ll all head back to the Capitol to play the game again.