OPINION: The state of other states’ hot-button issues

So far this year, the usual fireworks of previous Legislative sessions have not lit up the relatively sleepy session of the Georgia General Assembly.

A combination of GOP leaders’ business-focused priorities, a learning curve for the one-fifth of brand new lawmakers, and conservative measures already signed and delivered by past Republican majorities have combined for a session more focused on infrastructure and workforce issues than culture wars battles.

But that can quickly change. On Tuesday afternoon, state Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Ackworth, announced he’d be introducing a new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And a state Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that mirrors Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill limiting what school employees can say about gender identity issues.

From sports betting to transgender bans to new restrictions on abortion and or guns, hot-button legislation isn’t moving only in Georgia. A look at the state of other states’ legislative sessions can be a way to see what might still happen here.

Among the dominant themes for Republican lawmakers across the country in 2023 have been transgender issues, one of the newest and most emotional fronts in the culture wars.

At least nine states, including Tennessee and Arkansas, have introduced bills this session to restrict or ban drag shows. Some proposals would classify restaurants that host drag shows in the same manner as strip clubs, while other bills would ban the performances from being held on public property or venues where minors could see them.

No Georgia lawmaker has introduced a drag show bill yet, but last week state Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, introduced Senate Bill 141, which would prevent health care providers from giving transgender children medication, surgery, or any other treatment to help them align with their gender identity.

Alabama, Texas, and Arizona have already passed laws or signed executive orders to limit transgender care, while lawmakers in Texas, Idaho and Alabama were already considering bills like Dixon’s before last week. The Arkansas state Senate passed a similar measure Monday by voice vote.

And the conservative Heritage Foundation, which frequently drafts legislation used by lawmakers around the country, has written the “Given Name Act,” to require schools to use the names and the gender on students’ birth certificates unless they have written permission from parents to do otherwise.

New abortion restrictions haven’t turned up in Georgia yet this legislative session, largely because the state is already one of 13 where the procedure is mostly or totally banned.

But ProPublica reports new limits or punishments are being proposed in some other states that already have some of the strictest laws in the books.

A legislator in Texas wants to end tax breaks for companies that help employees leave the state to seek an abortion. A Tennessee lawmaker has introduced a bill to ban local governments from paying for health benefits for employees who try to have an abortion out-of-state.

And lawmakers in several states, including Georgia, are moving to punish local District Attorneys who fail to enforce state abortion laws.

Although Athens Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines does not specify abortion as the reason he introduced his measure, Gov, Brian Kemp and other state leaders expressed immense frustration last year as a series of local DAs announced that they have no intention of bringing prosecutions under the state’s new six-week ban.

Gaines’ bill would create an oversight council to monitor the conduct of DA’s.

“If a prosecutor is not doing his or her job, we need a system in state law to remove that individual from office,” Gaines said when he introduced his bill.

Democrats have countered that DA’s are elected by their communities because of the way they choose to enforce laws, not despite that. The ultimate oversight is an election, they said.

While culture war issues are getting the most attention right now, one of the most highly coordinated national lobbying efforts is happening on sports betting, including in Georgia.

The New York Times detailed the five-year massive push that has led 31 states to legalize sports betting since a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way to allow the once-taboo form of entertainment.

Lobbyists haven’t gotten their bills across the finish line in Georgia yet, but not for lack of trying. Two new sports betting bills, which would each bypass the state’s constitutional gambling ban, have been introduced this session.

For all of the national legislative trends that Georgia lawmakers are following this year, Republican control of both chambers means efforts in Democratically led states like Colorado to restrict gun access or even loosen abortion restrictions won’t get traction here.

It’s easy to think of Georgia politics as unique and special, and in some ways, it is . Look no further than the Fulton County Courthouse, where former President Donald Trump could soon be indicted on election fraud charges, to see how Georgia stands out these days. Or Gov. Brian Kemp, who feuded with Trump, only to be re-elected by huge margins.

But for all of the state’s idiosyncrasies, Georgia is also just one part of a 50-state plan for most lobbyists and special interests to advance their legislative agendas in state capitals across the country, especially as a divided Congress promises two years of gridlock ahead.