Veto day: Kemp faces decision over ‘police protection’ bill

06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Gov. Brian Kemp prepares to make remarks before signing HB 426, Georgia's hate crime law, in the North Wing of the Georgia State Capitol building on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Gov. Brian Kemp prepares to make remarks before signing HB 426, Georgia's hate crime law, in the North Wing of the Georgia State Capitol building on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Why he could nix the controversial bill

Gov. Brian Kemp faces a Wednesday deadline to sign or veto legislation intended by Republican supporters to grant police new protections against hate crimes but that critics say creates a messy tangle of legal problems.

The measure, House Bill 838, is the most significant proposal left on Kemp’s desk at the close of a 40-day period to sign or nullify bills – or take the rarer step of letting the legislation become law by not taking action.

It was carved out of the landmark hate-crimes measure that won overwhelming approval after years indecision in the Georgia Legislature, gaining traction only after graphic video emerged of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man killed in what prosecutors say was a racist attack.

As part of the compromise, Senate Republicans demanded the passage of a separate proposal that would create the new offense of “bias motivated intimidation” of a police officer or other first responder.

While the hate-crimes legislation earned widespread support, the more polarizing companion piece passed on a party-line margin in the Senate – and eked by with one vote to spare in the House – over the objections of critics who saw it as unnecessary and tone-deaf amid protests over police brutality.

At first glance, Kemp would seem assured to support it. He’s taken the side of law enforcement officials, called out the National Guard to protect state buildings after the State Patrol’s headquarters was vandalized and released a video message in support of police immediately following sickout protests by droves of Atlanta officers.

But civil rights groups and legislators have raised concerns that the hastily-written legislation could weaken protections for police officers in some cases and have other unintended consequences.

For one, the ACLU of Georgia argues that the measure would reduce potential prison sentences for the murder of a police officer from mandatory life in prison to a maximum of five years behind bars because of a conflict in the law.

Other critics fear that it could give police officers new powers to chase down street protesters in the state’s civil courts by granting them broad authority to sue people, groups or corporations that infringe on their civil rights.

June 26, 2020 Atlanta - Activists holds sign to protest before Gov. Brian Kemp signs HB 426, hate-crimes legislation, into law on the last day of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp signed hate-crimes legislation into law on Friday after state lawmakers brokered a compromise over the proposal after 16 years of debate over whether to extend protections to people who are targeted because of biases. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
June 26, 2020 Atlanta - Activists holds sign to protest before Gov. Brian Kemp signs HB 426, hate-crimes legislation, into law on the last day of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp signed hate-crimes legislation into law on Friday after state lawmakers brokered a compromise over the proposal after 16 years of debate over whether to extend protections to people who are targeted because of biases. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

And state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, notes that even the term “civil rights” in the legislation is never defined, leaving it to the courts to interpret the meaning.

Other bills on the desk

Kemp, a first-term Republican, wasn’t shy about using the red pen last year when he nixed 14 measures, including one that would have required elementary schools to schedule recess each day and another that would have mandated that school systems to update safety plans and conduct drills.

He echoed a tone set by his predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal, who was not afraid to send measures to the scrap heap. Deal vetoed both a "religious liberty" measure and a campus gun proposal in 2016, and in 2018 he nullified 21 bills — the most of his eight-year tenure.

Aside from the police law, he’s also set to decide whether to approve a pandemic-inspired measure that would curtail the ability of people to sue businesses and health care providers if they are diagnosed with COVID-19.

And he must determine whether to back proposals to dissolve the Glynn County Police Department, which were introduced in January in response to years of alleged problems at the agency but earned more support after Arbery’s death.

He’s already signed into law the other highest-profile measures.

Beyond the hate-crimes legislation, he’s also approved measures to extend the time some new mothers can receive Medicaid benefits, cut down on “surprise” medical bills and allow stores to deliver beer, wine and booze to Georgians’ homes.

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