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Maggie Lee

Georgia legislature sends pile of bills to governor — but some got no love

The ceremonial throwing of paper to end the annual legislative session at the state Capitol in Atlanta. File/Credit: Maggie Lee

The most famous news out of this year’s state Legislature, Senate Bill 202, makes a range of changes to voting laws, some boring, some incendiary. Like banning the Secretary of State from doing mass mailings of unsolicited absentee ballot requests. And it bans polling places on buses, something only Fulton County does. And a lot more. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed it immediately; and critics brought it to court almost as immediately.

Legislators also passed a $27.3 billion budget — as usual, the biggest items are education and health. But something new? MARTA got a line in the budget, in the form of $6 million towards the Bankhead station renovation. And the state will spend over $1 million to build a facility at the state’s public safety training center to teach de-escalation and proper use of force techniques to police.

But there’s more to the session than voting and spending.  The Georgia legislature sent piles of bills to Kemp for his review. He has just over a month. Here are some highlights.

“Reckless stunt driving”: A 17-page bill refines definitions of and punishments for for laying drag or drag racing and makes a crime of promoting any of that. First-time “reckless stunt driving” would be subject to a fine of up to $750 and jail up to six months. “Habitual” violators could lose their car. House Bill 534 awaits Kemp’s signature, which is sure to come; a slightly different earlier version originated in his office.

Two-martini lunch, to-go: The Legislature OK’d permanent legal booze takeout. Two sealed mixed drinks per entree could be added to food takeouts under Senate Bill 236. Some cities, like Atlanta, temporarily allowed beer and wine to-go during COVID-19 lockdown. Right now, mixed drinks are only legal to carry out in designated “entertainment zones.”

COVID delays speedy trials: Courts should be getting a while longer to hear cases, as they deal with a backlog that built up while juries were on pandemic pause. Court circuits will be able to waive statutory speedy trial requirements, subject to several rules. The idea of Senate Bill 163 is to give the most priority to defendants who have been held in custody for the longest time.  But still, nobody knows how long the backlog will take to clear.

Parental leave for state employees: State employees, including teachers, would be eligible for up to three weeks of paid parental leave under House Bill 146. It nearly happened last year, but last-minute House-Senate wrangling killed it.  This year, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, made it a priority.  Georgia doesn’t require employers to offer any paid parental leave.

Marijuana: Don’t hold your breath on legal weed — there’s no obvious way marijuana could become legal here in the short term. All that passed was Senate Bill 195. It started as small tweaks to the state’s medical cannabis program regulations, a program that itself hasn’t resulted in the actual cultivation of medical cannabis yet. Along the way, the bill also picked up a limit on the number of dispensaries that could be licensed in Georgia. It had been unlimited. Now it’s set at a maximum of 30 dispensaries statewide. But the state hasn’t set up rules and regulations for dispensaries either and it’s not clear when the license application will be open, much less when those 30 dispensaries would be open.

Probation early release: Three years ago, Georgia set up a path for folks to get off probation early for good behavior.  The problem is, the system didn’t work and something like 40,000 Georgians are under supervision who probably don’t need to be. A rewrite with some legal clarifications via Senate Bill 105 should fix that.

Citizen’s arrest: No longer will most Georgians have the right to “arrest” each other on suspicion of committing felonies. The state’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law has been rewritten to narrow it down to near-invisibility, with only a few carve-outs for the likes of shop and restaurant owners to “detain” shoplifters and dine-and-dashers. It was passed in the name of Ahmad Arbery, the Black jogger killed in a Brunswick neighborhood last year. Kemp has already expressed support for HB 479 and said vigilante-style violence has no place in Georgia.

Springing forward, falling back: If Congress ever acts to end daylight saving time, the Georgia Legislature has authorized the state to follow suit, under Senate Bill 100.

Tax breaks: Yacht repair customers and museum patrons would continue to benefit from favorable tax treatment. Senate Bill 6 is a mashup of parts of two tax break bills and one bill that sets up periodic audits of some tax breaks to see if or how Georgians are getting benefits from the state deciding to forego taxes on some things.

The biggest item in the mash-up bill is just an offer — an offer of up to $100 million in tax credits for companies pursuing “high-impact aerospace defense projects.” It’s Georgia’s bid to attract a new generation of military contractor to Cobb County and only part of the sweetener that such companies could get.

The bill omits a controversial and convoluted rural tax credit program that the Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler called a scam.

Chicken guts: Neighbors’ fights with one of Georgia’s top industries won’t end this year. Environmentalists and rural residents teamed up to via try and limit the spread of chicken guts onto agricultural fields. The chicken companies say it’s fertilizer. Neighbors say it stinks. Senate Bill 260 says the stuff can still go within 100 feet of houses.

But there are even more bills that they didn’t send to Kemp, such as:

Sports betting: Georgians won’t get to legally bet on sports, with the failure of any proposal to move.  Senate Republican Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga blamed House Democrats for not signing on. He said that by denying their necessary support, Democrats were leaving millions of dollars on the table that would have been used to create need-based HOPE scholarships. One might equally note that HOPE used to be need-based and targeted at students on the bottom end of the economic ladder, and that such a cap could be put back on if there was political will for it.

Anyway, sports betting got tied up with voting too. Sports betting needed some Democratic votes to pass, but after Senate Bill 202 passed, Democrats weren’t in any mood to lend votes out.

A Georgia NAACP statement put it this way: “If they expect to earn our support on corporate issues that will make rich people wealthier, our expectations is that they, too, work with us on uplifting our community through meaningful policy objectives like Medicaid Expansion and the Earned Income Tax Credit.”

But there’s always next time. This was just the first year of a two-year term, and the Legislature will meet sometime this fall to re-draw district lines and in January for their regular session.

Gun protection: A multipart gun bill would have taken away governors’ powers to curtail the gun trade during an emergency.  It also specified that if police departments don’t sell seized weapons, potential buyers can go to court to try and force sales. House Bill 218 started as a bill that only changed how gun licenses in other states can be recognized here. The Senate passed the beefier version, which the House declined to take up.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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