Lawmakers embrace pecans, skip sports bets in 2021’s masked session

By: , and - April 1, 2021 6:10 pm

Rep. Ed Setzler pitched his bill to set rules for residents of long-term care facilities on the House floor, one of the fervently debated proposals left behind when the 2021 General Assembly gaveled to a close early Thursday morning. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

This story was updated on April 4.

Lawmakers just concluded a legislative session dominated by the GOP’s push to remake Georgia’s election laws after Republicans suffered stunning losses at the ballot box.

Even as the law-making continued under the Gold Dome this week, the struggle to define the sweeping election bill was already playing out on national TV and putting Republican state leaders at odds with some of the state’s largest employers.

But there were also a slew of other bills that passed.

Lawmakers followed through on their threat to hire a “chief labor officer” who would share power with the state’s elected labor commissioner.

They named the pecan the official state nut as an intended boost to an industry that suffered generational losses during 2018’s Hurricane Michael, although – as some have noted – a pecan is technically a drupe.

And after much consternation, they agreed that observing daylight saving time year-round is the way to go, should Congress ever decide to end the unpopular twice-a-year time change ritual and let states choose.

They also created more than a dozen new tax credits, bringing the state’s spending on special-interest tax breaks up to more than $10 billion a year, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute’s count. They also approved a limited analysis of selected tax credits, although several Republicans voiced suspicions that such reviews would lead to tax increases.

Last-minute substitutes and agreements piled up outside the House chamber on the last day of the 2021 legislative session. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

But sometimes it is just as notable when bills do not make it to the governor’s desk, like an attempt to expand gun rights that stalled in the wake of mass shootings in metro Atlanta and Colorado.

Here is a look at a few other bills that stalled and could still be revived in next year’s legislative session:

Online sports betting: The perennial tug-of-war over whether to expand gambling in Georgia appeared poised for a breakthrough this session when GOP leaders pressed their colleagues to embrace – and cash in on – a form of gambling that is already happening illegally here.

A lengthy bill outlining new regulations for the industry came out of the Senate earlier, along with a proposed constitutional amendment that senators argued would be needed to make sports wagering legal in Georgia.

The tenuous support for the measure collapsed, though, after Republicans pushed through a voting bill that includes controversial provisions like a ban on third parties distributing food and drinks near polling places and changes that give the Legislature more power over local elections.

Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, worked to keep negotiations alive till the end, including new proposed limits on the money that can be kept in the lottery’s reserves and increases in the amount set aside for needs-based scholarships.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are doing this right now in the state to the tune of $2.3 billion,” Stephens told his colleagues Wednesday evening, referring to the online wagering already taking place in Georgia.

Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican who co-sponsored a sports betting bill, blamed House Democrats for playing politics with the proposal.

“My real frustration is they are leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table for needs-based gap funding for people who really need it,” Mullis said, referring to Democrats in the House where his bill stalled.

The Senate voted 41-10 for the constitutional amendment resolution early last month, clearing the two-thirds support required to move it to the House. And Senate Bill 142 that set out parameters for the Georgia Lottery to oversee sports betting was approved 34 to 17.

Visitation during a pandemic: Acworth Republican Rep. Ed Setzler’s visitation bill sparked an emotional debate in the House and even led Speaker David Ralston to make a rare trip to the well to urge members to support the bill.

The bill would have given patients at hospitals and assisted living facilities more rights to see loved ones during a public health state of emergency, but the measure stalled Wednesday in the Senate.

Lawmakers like Dawsonville Republican Rep. Will Wade shared stories of grief, which they said Setzler’s bill may have alleviated.

“My family experienced the gut-wrenching situation with a father who had 12 separate falls over the last nine months and succumbed to not only the fact that dementia took his life, but his decline was rapidly sped up due to the fact that we had limited access during a pandemic in which folks were trying to figure out what ‘Do no harm’ really meant,” he said Wednesday.

Opponents like Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said the bill would leave hospitals helpless to stop people from spreading infections to vulnerable patients.

“A person could enter the hospital for the purpose of visiting a loved one, violate every security protocol, do direct injury to the loved one, which happens in hospitals and care facilities out of very strange dynamics, and the hospital would have no liability of any kind for injury done to that hospital under this proposal,” the Decatur Democrat said.

Its provisions were stripped down by a Senate panel last week, and the two chambers reached an impasse after the Senate declined to take up the stronger version insisted upon by members of the House.

Ralston didn’t hide his disappointment.

“I think that they really let down a lot of Georgia families by putting that bill on the table,” Ralston told reporters, referring to a procedural maneuver that effectively ended the bill’s chances for this session. “I thought it was very disrespectful. And again, I was just very disappointed that they didn’t at least give it a fair debate.”

Another failed measure, known as the “granny cam” bill, would have allowed residents of nursing homes to install video cameras as long as they were in plain sight in their rooms as a way of preventing abuse and neglect. Critics objected to a provision that would have barred the footage from being allowed into civil court proceedings.

Coal ash: A measure that would have required Georgia Power and other utilities to monitor toxic coal ash pits for at least five decades stalled in a Senate committee.

The proposal found broad support in the House last month, even as environmentalists and residents near the ponds made the case for the coal ash waste to be moved to lined landfills.

Georgia Power plans to close and cap coal ash storage at plants McDonough, Scherer, Wansley, Yates and Hammond. All said, the public utility is in the process of closing 29 coal ash sites across the state, with 10 of them left enclosed in unlined pits.

Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia and chair of the Georgia Water Coalition’s coal ash committee, lamented the lack of progress this session.

“Toxic coal ash is sitting in groundwater around the state and yet the Georgia legislature failed to pass legislation addressing this problem,” Gayer said in a statement Thursday. “To make matters worse, Georgia Power ratepayers are on the hook for a clean-up that will not solve our coal ash problems and protect Georgia’s waterways.”

The bill is in the Senate Natural Resources Committee, where it remains alive for next year. Identical bills in both chambers that would have required coal ash to be stored in lined landfills and fully removed when in contact with groundwater did not receive hearings.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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