Policy and election-year politics mixed into new Georgia laws

2024 legislative session combines money and culture wars
A statue of James Oglethrope, founder of Georgia, is seen at the Capitol in Atlanta on Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A statue of James Oglethrope, founder of Georgia, is seen at the Capitol in Atlanta on Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Flush with cash and facing an election year, Georgia lawmakers prioritized bills that cut taxes, stoke political emotions and touch voters’ lives in some way.

Legislators left the Capitol early Friday morning after making their mark on the state over the past three months, with the Republican majority pushing both practical spending bills and sparking debates over partisan issues including immigration and transgender people.

Meanwhile, Democrats were outnumbered and outvoted, unable to pass their longtime top goal of Medicaid expansion, but they say they stopped some of the bills they most strongly opposed.

Now, hundreds of bills will land on the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto sometime over the next 40 days.

“You know, some folks choose politics,” House Speaker Jon Burns said. “The House chooses results. And we delivered for the people of Georgia on the issues that I believe — and the members believe — matter the most.”

Some of those results: pay raises for teachers and police, income and property tax cuts, immigration detention requirements and $6,500 vouchers for students to attend private schools.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Failed bills include mining protections for the Okefenokee Swamp, legalizing sports betting, a cap on Georgia’s generous film tax credit and a ban on prescribing puberty blockers to transgender minors.

“It was election-year politics — a lot of signaling and culture wars and less of the substance that Georgia families care most about,” said state Rep. Phil Olaleye, a Democrat from Atlanta. “It’s a missed opportunity. A lot of investments in education, health care expansion and public safety are left on the table.”

Pocketbook politics

Sitting on a $16 billion stockpile of money held in reserves, legislators felt free to dole out cash this year.

Georgia’s $36.1 billion state budget includes 4% raises for rank-and-file state government workers — up to $3,000 — and teachers would receive $2,500 increases. Georgians’ taxes could go down by dropping the income tax rate from 5.49% to 5.39%, saving them $360 million next year.

The budget and tax cuts won bipartisan acclaim — few legislators oppose extra money in the pockets of their voters before they head to the polls. All 236 seats in the General Assembly are up for election in the fall.

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

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Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

But hot-button fights over immigration, transgender health care and election laws created deep divides — most ideas originating in the Senate — with Democrats voting in unison against the proposals.

“I’m proud of all that the Senate accomplished this session, promoting an agenda to help Georgia families, expand access to health care, support (historically Black colleges and universities), crack down on sanctuary (city) policies and protect women’s sports,” Lt. Gov. Burt Jones said.

“These issues are a marathon, not a sprint,” Jones said, “and we’ll continue to build on our accomplishments year after year to enact policies that lift up the middle class and fight back against radical Democrats’ insanity.”

Fighting culture wars

Ultimately, lawmakers passed a bill to require sheriffs to enforce federal immigration laws and legislation that would perpetuate activists’ voter eligibility challenges. The transgender puberty blocker bill passed the Senate but didn’t receive a vote in the House.

An opponent of the puberty blocker bill, Peter Nunn, walked the halls of the Capitol carrying signs saying “Stop attacking trans Georgians” and “I am a trans rights voter.”

“These are just extremely dangerous, harmful bills that are based out of fear,” said Nunn, who serves on the board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Georgia chapter. “It’s happening in every state across the country, it’s a concerted effort, and it is because of people’s ignorance and fear about what being trans is.”

Republican legislators were more excited to talk about bills that passed Thursday than contentious failed proposals to regulate gender identity and health.

“I think we did some incredible job,” said state Rep. Karen Mathiak, a Republican from Griffin. “The tax cut is the biggest thing, along with the things we’ve done for our schools and our teachers.”

Credit: Mark Niesse

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Credit: Mark Niesse

Democrats were often left despondent during this year’s legislative session, especially when they thought Medicaid expansion might finally advance after a decade of urging Republicans to support the idea. A proposal that failed would have made at least 359,000 uninsured people newly eligible for health coverage, according to data from KFF, a health information organization.

Instead, the proposal fell short in a Senate committee last week, at Kemp’s urging, and Republicans passed a different bill that relaxed rules on opening new hospitals.

“There are days in this building that break your heart,” House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Democrat from Macon, said after the Medicaid bill fell short. “Georgians are suffering. My Democratic colleagues and I have done everything within our power, but it seems that the only thing that’s possible is to unseat Republicans and get them out of the way.”

Fodder for the ‘24 campaign

But many Republicans said they feel confident after completing the annual legislative session and heading into election season, especially with freshly drawn political maps that will likely keep most of their seats safe.

Republicans hold a 101-78 advantage in the state House and a 33-23 lead in the state Senate.

“I think they were looking for things to show their constituents that they’re doing something,” said Buzz Brockway, a former Republican state representative who now works at the Georgia Center for Opportunity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing poverty. “I would call it a ‘medium session.’ Some things got done that are important and move the ball forward, but nobody got everything they wanted.”

State Rep. Doreen Carter said the Republican majority passed bills it thought would impress its conservative voters, riling them up for the election year.

“They continue to play to that base,” said Carter, a Democrat from Lithonia. “I would love to see the day when we all sit down together and really talk about Georgia, and not what’s going to get someone else so much.”

But many legislators can boast to their constituents about several accomplishments that cross party lines.

They passed a bill that defines antisemitism for hate crimes and discrimination laws following a difficult debate amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Another legislative goal that crossed the finish line was a bill that enshrined modest protections for renters living in neglected homes and required that rental properties be “fit for human habitation.” The bill would increase Georgia’s tenant protections, which affordable housing advocates regard as some of the weakest in the country.

Both bills fell short during last year’s legislative session but passed this year with bipartisan support.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch said some of the more contentious issues that originated in the Senate this year weren’t necessarily just to drum up support from the Republican base.

“Every House member is up for reelection, just like the senators are,” he said. “We all have to go back home and tell them what we got done. Maybe some people are calling them red-meat issues. We believe they’re kitchen table issues, and we’re going to continue to represent the values of our conservative constituents.”