Georgia lawmakers race to beat Monday deadline to get pet bills passed
Still hanging: Election oversight, abortion pill access, sports betting
State senators celebrated a small Sine Die at the end of the 2021 special session last fall. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
Monday is the final day for a bill to land on the governor’s desk for the year, and there are several pivotal questions left to be answered.
Will lawmakers empower a state law enforcement agency to investigate offenses related to voting? Will they pass a ban on women receiving abortion medication by mail? Will this be the year the state legalizes sports betting? Can legislators agree on plans to fix the state’s stalled medical cannabis program and cut the income tax rate?
These are just a few of the big issues left unresolved as the clock winds down toward midnight on this year’s legislative session.
A GOP proposal to require women to have an in-person exam – along with an ultrasound – before being prescribed abortion medication sprung out of a House committee Friday.
The measure, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Bruce Thompson, is a response to the Biden administration’s pandemic-loosened rules that allow for mail-order medication abortion. The Food and Drug Administration made the change permanent in December.
The bill has been stripped of controversial language directing doctors to tell women they may be able to reverse the effects of the medication, but it continues to draw objections from those who say the changes needlessly make it harder for women to access the drugs in the age of telemedicine.
Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, argued the revised bill focuses on ensuring safe access to the medication and has tried to steer the debate away from abortion rights. The state passed a restrictive anti-abortion law in 2019 that is on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a Mississippi law.
“That was done a couple of years ago in as far as this legislature and it’s before the Supreme Court to decide, but this is about whether this medication is safe or not and if we need to do something to make it safe,” Cooper said at a Thursday committee meeting.
Anti-abortion advocates have worked closely with Republican lawmakers throughout the session on the bill. They have also championed a bill that is on the move that would allow churches to provide maternity housing for pregnant women and new moms.
House Bill 1464 was this year’s major election bill when it cleared the House with provisions giving the Georgia Bureau of Investigation original jurisdiction to investigate election cases, new chains of custody for ballots and opening original paper ballots to public inspection.
That bill was neutered by the Senate Ethics Committee last week after hearing sharp discord from local election officials and voting rights organizations, leaving only the extension of employees’ time off for voting during early voting.
However, the provision giving the GBI more authority to investigate voting-related allegations remains alive after it was snuck into another bill that a House panel could vote on early Monday.
It is now part of Senate Bill 89, introduced by Senate Pro Tempore Butch Miller with the purpose of establishing a chief elections assistance officer position that would work with local elections offices deemed to be underperforming.
The controversial provision has been criticized as a method of intimidating poll workers and voters that lends credence to unfounded fraud accusations since it gives the GBI more authority to initiate cases that generally fall under the authority of the State Election Board and Secretary of State’s office.
Republican lawmakers in both chambers are eager to cut the state’s income tax rate this election year, but they have put forward competing proposals for how to do it.
The Legislature has made incremental reductions in recent years. But GOP leaders are under pressure from political rivals who are campaigning on complete elimination of the tax, which funds half the state budget.
House GOP leaders pitched a sweeping $1 billion plan that would have flattened and reduced Georgia’s income tax rate to 5.25%, down from 5.75%. The House bill cleared that chamber with a 115-52 vote, with more than a dozen Democrats backing the bill.
In the Senate, Sen. Chuck Hufstetler countered with a proposed deeper cut, taking the rate down to 4.99%. But the Rome Republican’s plan would do it more gradually, taking a decade to materialize, and tie the reductions to how state revenues are performing. Hufstetler cited concerns the House proposal would raise taxes on a half million Georgians. The Senate version passed 51-4 Friday.
“I just didn’t want to spend over $1 billion dollars to raise taxes on people,” Hufstetler has said.
Hufstetler also tried to pack in new limits – including a $900 million cap – on the state’s film tax credit program but has since dropped that proposal, which would have been a nonstarter in the House.
“I’m not prepared to run that industry out of Georgia,” House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told reporters last week.
The bill, House Bill 1437, is one of the legislative disagreements destined for negotiations within a conference committee, which is a group with three members from each chamber tasked with hashing out the differences.
The latest effort to expand legal gambling in Georgia hangs in the balance as Sine Die approaches.
Rep. Ron Stephens, Savannah Republican and longtime supporter of gambling expansion, passed legislation through a House committee last week designed to immediately open the door to online sports betting and create an easier path for further expansion including casino gambling and horse racing in the future.
The bills, grafted onto a narrower sports betting legislation by Senate Rules Chair Jeff Mullis, would put two questions to voters: whether to allow sports betting and whether to amend the state constitution to toss out Georgia’s ban on forms of gambling other than the state lottery.
The bill enabling sports betting made it to the House Rules Committee Wednesday after it was stripped of the possibility of expanding beyond sports betting.
Stephens said the money raised from sports betting would be split 50-50 among HOPE scholarships, new needs-based college scholarships and pre-K education. Bettors would have to be 21 or older, and the bill prohibits wagers on high school games.
Opponents say expanding gambling will encourage addiction and other social ills.
Rules Committee members disagreed over how to distribute the proceeds, and committee chair Richard Smith, a Republican from Columbus, told the factions to work it out and come back.
“We’re going to give you all a chance to meet with the sponsor of the bill and let him answer any questions that might be there, and once a decision is made, then we’ll decide its fate,” he said.
Monday is the final day for that decision, and even if the measure makes it through the Rules Committee, there are more obstacles to overcome.
Because it calls for an amendment to the state constitution, it will require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers before it can head to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.
On Crossover Day, the Senate failed to meet that threshold for a bill aimed at amending the constitution to allow for legalized betting on horse races.
Efforts to fix the state’s medical marijuana bill ran into their latest snag Friday as the House and Senate each insisted on their chamber’s own version of legislation designed to get a form of medical cannabis into the hands of patients who need it.
The state legalized a form of low-THC oil for a list of specific medical conditions in 2015, but court battles and accusations of regulators playing to insiders within the state’s budding production program have resulted in the 20,000-plus people on the state registry unable to legally get the medicine.
The chambers disagree on whether to grant licenses to the six approved companies or create a new application process while obtaining the oil from other states to give patients on the registry.
The House moved Friday to create a conference committee. If both chambers sign on to the committee’s report, the finished bill will go to the governor.
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