OPINION: The good, the bad, and the ugly (so far) of the Legislative session

(L-R) Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, is greeted by House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, following Beverly’s farewell speech at the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

(L-R) Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, is greeted by House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, following Beverly’s farewell speech at the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

With just one day left in the 2023-2024 legislative session, it’s worth pausing to assess the session so far, from the good to the bad to the downright ugly.

The two-year process kicked off in January last year after Gov. Brian Kemp cruised to a seven-point victory over Stacey Abrams in the 2022 election. But weeks after those contests, House Speaker David Ralston died unexpectedly, leaving the House without its longtime leader. Two two events meant the state House and Senate would have two new leaders at once-- and opened the questions of how the chambers would work together.

Into the Ralston void came newly elected Speaker Jon Burns of Sylvania. Although he lacked Ralston’s booming Blue Ridge baritone, Burns kept both the GOP caucus and the state House running smoothly and largely anchored the same way Ralston had.

The state Senate, on the other hand, became a wilder beast. Like Burns, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones was also new to his job, after easily winning election in 2022. He quickly brought a looser process that let GOP measures openly pass or fail on the Senate floor, instead of managing dissent behind closed doors. With at least a half dozen Republicans expected to consider runs for higher office in 2026, including Jones himself, the upper chamber ends the session looking more like the conservative rabble-rousers in the U.S. House than the historically more deliberative U.S. Senate.

The combination of the two chambers, along with Gov. Brian Kemp’s more hands-off second-term approach, has so far produced results that are a mix of good, bad, and, occasionally, the ugly.

On the good side of the ledger as the session comes to a close is a continuation of the mental health overhaul that began under Ralston’s tenure, when Georgia ranked at or near the bottom of nearly every measure of mental health services.

After stalling in the Senate last year, new funding for mental health, along with a series of smaller policy measures, have all passed or are poised to as a part of the annual state budget now being hammered out between the House and Senate. A revamped rural hospital bill that passed last week may have promise for mental health services as well.

Also positive this session have been pay raises for public school teachers, law enforcement officers, and other state employees, along with significant spending on the unglamorous, but essential functions of government that the public relies on like funding for sewer and infrastructure improvements.

A harebrained effort last year to split the City of Atlanta and create a new “City of Buckhead City” died a dramatic death in the state Senate last March, and stayed dead all session long. Chalk a win up for good government and common sense.

More recently, after a lengthy AJC investigation into squalid conditions in some rental complexes in the area, the House gave final passage Tuesday to a bill with new tenant protections. Extended paid parental leave for state workers made it to final passage, ensuring that Georgia is at least catching up to private employers.

A Senate effort to expand Medicaid in Georgia seems dead for the year. But bipartisan support in a Senate committee showed a willingness for GOP leaders to allow votes on the issue, and rank-and-file Republicans’ interest in voting yes. That’s an important new dynamic worth watching in years ahead.

No matter where you sit, the 2023-2024 legislative session may ultimately be remembered as the “Gilded Age,” literally, as state coffers flush with federal dollars and a growing economy made all spending look like good spending.

Lawmakers sped up income tax cuts and cut corporate taxes. They spent big on items with broad public support, like road and infrastructure projects, and not-so-broad support. A last-minute addition to the midyear budget that passed in March was a nearly $400 million renovation for the state Capitol complex. That includes a new eight-story office building for lawmakers, more parking, and a new coat of gilding for the gold dome.

It wasn’t long ago that times were so lean the governor started the budget year by telling agency heads to come to him with mandatory cuts to their operations. The $400 million new Capitol digs won’t look so conservative when the good times stop rolling — and they will stop.

The “bad” of this session so far probably depends on where you sit politically. Lawmakers quickly passed state-level immigration measures after nursing student Laken Riley was killed in Athens and an immigrant who had entered the country illegally was charged with her murder. Republicans welcomed the passage, while some Democrats decried it.

And as former President Donald Trump has continued to push false claims about the 2020 elections, more election-related bills were proposed and passed this session, just as they were in 2021.

No bill has been uglier than the “Frankenbill” that sprang to life recently from GOP state senators.

The measure began as a suicide prevention measure from a freshman Democrat, only to be gutted and used as a vehicle last week by Senate Republicans to combine four conservative culture war measures, including a ban on transgender athletes from playing sports, and a measure preventing sex education in schools before the sixth grade.

The bill passed the Senate Tuesday afternoon and headed to the House. And with Sine Die set for midnight on Thursday, there’s more than enough time left for more good, bad, and truly ugly legislation. Stay tuned.