Social issues to dominate Georgia’s election-year legislative session

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A Georgia General Assembly election-year session during which at least 12 lawmakers are seeking higher office already creates an atmosphere ripe for pushing the kind of hot-button issues that traditionally split the Legislature along party lines.

Add in the fact that there will be competitive Republican primaries for governor and lieutenant governor that will force the Legislature’s majority party to choose sides and Georgians could see a session of grandstanding, posturing and very little work getting done.

Election years often bring an uptick in the number of bills that play to the political base of the GOP majority, such as expanding access to guns and limiting abortion. This year could be a typical election-year session, only on steroids.

“Legislators can demonstrate what their values are and use (legislation) to send really important signals to the people that are going to be voting for them — particularly in competitive primaries,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

Each year, Republican leaders of the state House and Senate say they would prefer to focus on other issues — such as the state’s budget or efforts to bolster Georgia’s rural economy — while Democrats typically focus on health care expansion and voting rights.

“I respect that they have campaigns to run and I wish them all the best, but we have a job to do and we have 40 days to get it done with a limited amount of bandwidth,” said House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican.

But each year, at least one polarizing issue makes its way into headlines and takes over the session, at least temporarily. With elections on the horizon, it’s almost a given this year won’t be any different.

“When I think about some of the hot-button issues that are coming up ... they are being used in an attempt to mobilize voters,” Gillespie said. “And they’re also being used to draw a distinction between them and other candidates, particularly in races where they’re going to be in a competitive primary.”

Gillespie said the GOP primary between Gov. Brian Kemp and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue will determine how the governor approaches his priorities for the legislative session. Perdue has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump and has tried to position himself as the more conservative choice, a notion the incumbent would strongly dispute.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Kemp to assert his conservative bona fides,” she said. “And so what that could compel him to do is to come out and support — and perhaps even sign — bills that he might not necessarily have been as pressured to sign in previous years in order to demonstrate that he, too, is conservative.”

Such fights over sensitive issues reflect a growing political rift among many Americans, and focusing on those topics could alienate moderate voters on both sides. But those are the issues that the GOP and Democratic bases on the right and left love to debate.

Senate Democratic Whip Harold Jones of Augusta said that just because hot-button bills are filed doesn’t mean they should consume any of the Legislature’s energy.

“Obviously, people can file what they want, but the question is: Should we actually bring those kind of issues up if they’re only meant to be divisive — no matter what side it’s on?” Jones said.

Legislation expected to advance this year would ease access to guns in Georgia. Republican lawmakers for years have pushed for some form of “constitutional carry” — where gun owners aren’t required to purchase a license to carry a weapon.

State Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, said while members of his party support permit-less carry of weapons, there are several things that should be done to make it easier for Georgians to access guns.

Ralston said: “I think the larger question is: What is the consensus of the membership of the House in terms of doing something? You hear a lot of talk about this concept called constitutional carry. But there are many different definitions and forms of that.”

Ralston declined late in the session last year to have the House vote on a bill from state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, a Canton Republican, that initially would have made it easier for travelers to bring their guns into the state. The vote would have come about two weeks after eight people where gunned down in three Atlanta-area spas.

The legislation, House Bill 218, would also allow probate judges to process gun carry licenses and license renewals online. Currently, applicants must go to the court in person. The bill would also prohibit the governor from closing weapons manufacturers or shooting ranges during a public emergency.

The bill is now in the House and could be picked back up this year.

Abortion is another hot-button issue that could come up, again.

Some lawmakers say the restrictive abortion law Georgia passed in 2019 should continue to make its way through the judicial process. A federal appeals court judge in September said that he would hold off deciding the fate of Georgia’s anti-abortion law — which would have banned abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they’re pregnant — until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling on a similar lawsuit out of Mississippi. The Mississippi law bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

But some lawmakers want to pursue legislation that mirrors a Texas law that allows private citizens to sue anyone involved in facilitating abortions.

“That’s probably the most intense issue that we handle as a General Assembly,” Ralston said. “I remember when we (debated) it in 2019, it was extremely intense and people have strong feelings about it. And so I don’t know why we would want to go through that without the guidance of the Supreme Court decision on the Mississippi case.”

Lawmakers are also expected to continue to push through changes to the state’s gambling laws. A bill that would have asked voters to decide whether the state’s constitution should allow mobile sports betting passed the Senate last year but stalled in the House.

For years, lawmakers have tried to pass legislation that would allow casino gambling, horse racing, sports betting — or a combination of the three — in Georgia. Ralston said it’s time for the Legislature to move gambling legislation this session.

“I think there’s been a lot of discussion on that issue over the interim,” Ralston said. “And we’re still discussing some possible solutions, which will have broad appeal to members of both parties and from all areas of the state.”

Republican legislators have also announced plans to tackle other hot-button issues that have gained attention nationally — banning of books and other materials that they consider obscene from school libraries and barring the teaching of “critical race theory,” a law-school level concept based on the idea that racism is a social construct that is embedded in all aspects of our lives, including in legal systems and policies.

The theory, often called CRT, became the central issue of Virginia’s close gubernatorial race last year, driving out voters and pushing Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin over the top. The coursework isn’t taught in Georgia k-12 schools but critics assert its tenets are.

Ralston said he’s prepared for any political grandstanding that might arise this year and doesn’t plan to let it get in the way of a successful session.

“It’s not going to make it hard for me to get my work done — the work of the House,” he said. “And if this thing gets kind of silly, we can always tune it out in our minds.”