Georgia lawmakers face do-or-die Crossover Day on elections, culture wars bills

By: and - March 15, 2022 1:00 am

Sen. Jeff Mullis speaks on the Senate floor. As chair of the powerful Rules Committee Mullis has the power to decide which bills will or will not get a hearing on Crossover Day. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

When the music stops at the Gold Dome Tuesday night, not every bill will have a seat.

Tuesday is Crossover Day in the state Legislature, the last day a bill can cross from one chamber to the other. While lawmakers have been known to practice legislative necromancy by grafting dead language onto healthy bills, legislation that does not pass either Georgia’s House or Senate by Crossover Day is typically considered dead for the session.

“It doesn’t happen every day, but every session it happens on some bills,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “For the most part, bills that aren’t approved by one chamber or the other will not go forward, but if, indeed, the leadership gets behind it, they will find a way to push it through.”

The caffeine-fueled festivities usually last well into the night as senators and representatives do all they can to ensure their favored bills are still breathing when the sun rises anew.

The Senate agenda for Tuesday contains 45 bills or resolutions, and the House calendar is set to be revealed when the Rules Committee meets at 8:30 a.m., but the House’s plans could evolve throughout the day.

“What you’ll see on the House side, not the Senate side, is the House Rules Committee can meet during the day and amend that list of legislation,” Bullock said. “The Senate tends to have a single calendar for the day, but the House Rules Committee can come up with new calendars.”

Here’s a short list of proposed legislation whose fate will likely be sealed one way or the other when the final gavel falls Tuesday night.

Education

During his annual State of the State speech, Gov. Brian Kemp listed a slate of priorities for the state public education system, many of which are already safe from being knocked out on Crossover Day. Bills banning the teaching of so-called divisive concepts have passed both the House and Senate. Bills to enshrine a “parents’ bill of rights” and allow adults to more easily register complaints about school library materials are likewise alive and well.

But supporters of school vouchers are hoping Crossover Day will bring a win for another conservative favorite, the perennial plan to pay public school parents to transfer their students into private schools.

A Senate bill authored by Senate Pro Tempore Butch Miller, a Gainesville Republican, moved out of committee last week and has been added to the Senate calendar for a full vote.

But a Senate vote could be a pyrrhic victory for voucher fans. House Speaker David Ralston has indicated a similar House bill will not receive a vote after a pro-voucher group sent out mailers apparently intended to bully Republicans into supporting the measure by tying them to high-profile Democrats.

Another Miller bill that aims to protect the rights of parents to attend school board meetings has also passed through a committee and is up for a full vote Tuesday.

A pair of bills by powerful Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis aimed at reshaping the governing body of high school sports in the state are not on Tuesday’s calendar.

The first bill would replace the Georgia High School Association entirely with a new organization. That bill has passed committee and been read twice in the Senate. The second bill would make public and private schools with small numbers of students compete in separate regions and playoffs, but has not advanced out of committee.

A bill that would ban transgender students from playing on girls’ sports teams has passed the Senate and awaits a House vote, but another measure modeled after Florida’s so-called “Don’t say gay” bill has LGBTQ advocates wary. Senate Bill 613 aims to prevent private schools from discussing “sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not appropriate for the age and developmental stage of the student.”

The odds of the bill moving forward seem low — Sen. Carden Summers, a Cordele Republican, filed it a week before Crossover Day, and it has not received a committee hearing.

During a huddle with reporters last week, Ralston seemed dismissive of its odds in the House if it makes it over.

“I don’t read Senate bills until they get over here,” he said. “If it gets over here, I’ll take a look at it. I mean, that doesn’t sound like something that’s very high on my agenda.”

This year has also seen a renewed push to extend in-state tuition benefits to some immigrants studying in Georgia. Senate Bill 460 would allow students who came to the country illegally as minors and who have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to pay the same reduced rate as other Georgia students. House Bill 932 would extend that benefit instead to refugees, special immigrants and humanitarian parolees upon their arrival to the state. Neither bill has so far passed its committee vote.

Elections

Last year’s controversial overhaul of the state’s election system was far from the final word on voting in Georgia, and lawmakers are poised once more to push for big changes to the ways Georgians cast their ballots.

The House chamber could take up Tuesday the most comprehensive voting bill of the session, which would give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation the power to initiate election fraud cases, allow the public to inspect official paper ballots and make it more difficult for county election offices to accept private contributions.

Republican legislators behind House Bill 1464 say it would strengthen last year’s controversial voting law overhaul by granting the GBI the authority to take the lead in subpoenaing records, adding chain of custody requirements for handling ballots and requiring the State Election Board to oversee donations from outside groups.

Detractors note that the bill gives credence to false claims of election fraud originating in 2020, will cause local election offices to lose millions in private donations, and could result in greater intimidation of voters and election workers since GBI will handle cases instead of the Secretary of State’s Office.

Public safety

Another contentious measure that must pass the Senate on Tuesday to have a realistic chance to pass would add harsher penalties for blocking a highway, vandalizing storefronts and other crimes committed while protesting. The bill is a response to the racial justice protests that shook cities across the country, including Atlanta, in the summer of 2020. Critics say provisions in the bill could be burdensome to local governments and likely violate First Amendment protections for protesters.

A bill to standardize the ad hoc process of compensating Georgians who have been wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit is set to get a vote in the House Tuesday.

The National Registry of Exonerations reports 47 Georgians have been cleared after wrongful convictions since 1989. The state has paid out $7.9 million to 10 of them since 1991, according to data from the Georgia Innocence Project.

If the bill becomes law, it will establish a panel to decide the financial compensation each wrongfully accused Georgian should receive instead of the Legislature.

Medical marijuana

Seven years ago, Georgia passed a law to allow registered patients with specific illnesses to take medical marijuana oil, but there is still no way to legally buy the medicine in the state as companies bicker in court over the rights to sell it.

Both chambers have legislation aimed at cracking the stalemate: House Bill 1453 and Senate Bill 609, which is scheduled to come up Tuesday in the Senate.

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Both bills aim to grant the final OK to six companies initially approved in 2020 and have provisions for potentially expanding licenses to companies that did not make the cut down the line.

Another House bill authored by Hartwell Republican Rep. Alan Powell aims to slice through the tangled knot by offering a license to all of the initially approved companies and all of those contesting the decision for a total of 22 licenses.

Gambling

What are the odds of a Georgian betting on a horse race without crossing state lines?

We’ll have a better idea Wednesday morning after the Senate takes up Senate Bill 212, a Mullis bill seeking to allow wagering on races in the state.

If it passes both chambers with two-thirds support and the governor signs off, it would be up to voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow the new form of gambling. Proponents say doing so would help the agriculture industry and create new jobs caring for the horses and working at the tracks. Naysayers believe tracks will create gambling addicts through historical horse racing machines, revenue boosters for racetracks that opponents say are just slot machines by another name.

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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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