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In a late-blooming session, kudzu bills take center stage

Kudzu. (Photo by Justin Wilkens, via Unsplash.)

By Tom Baxter

This year’s session of the General Assembly has been quite a while catching up with itself.

With new presiding officers in the House and Senate and some 50 new members in all, this year’s legislature took longer than usual to get itself organized. When the bills finally started flowing into the hopper, many turned out only to be hatchlings, tabled for possible action next year.

A term that seems to have increased in usage this year is “zombie bill,” for legislation that keeps coming back, no matter how many times it’s killed. That’s descriptive enough, but considering our location, “kudzu bill” would be even better.

Two kudzu bills, SB 57, the sports betting bill, and SB 114, the Buckhead cityhood bill, were the most closely watched debates in the Senate last Thursday afternoon, as the legislature headed toward Crossover Day on Monday. That was befitting of a session in which not much of great substance is likely to be accomplished.

In the way that the root crown of a kudzu plant can send out a tangle of vines, gambling has spawned several bills this year, and the subject may not be completely exhausted until the final hours of the session. All these bills refer to sports betting, but SB 57 was widely viewed as the horse racing bill, including by its author, Sen. Billy Hickman. It was defeated by a wider-than-expected 37-19 vote, but as long as horses run for money, this bill will be back.

By the time the Buckhead cityhood bill came up for debate, everybody in the building appeared to know what the vote would be, and yet the debate played out as if there was still something to be decided. Sen. Randy Robertson, the bill’s sponsor, covered a lot of familiar ground about crime and self-determination, but he looked just as certain about the outcome as everyone else.

At root, this had become a proxy battle between Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, two Republicans who may never run against each other, but seem destined to bump heads a lot. It had echoes of Donald Trump’s attempt to torpedo Kemp in last year’s Republican primary, with a similar outcome.

Jones got something out of the contest when Buckhead City booster Bill White praised him for his support on Tucker Carleson Tonight, burnishing Jones’ MAGA credentials. White predicted on the Fox News program that the vote would be “a big test of his (Jones’) leadership,” but the decisive blow sinking the bill had already been struck with the leak of a memo from Kemp’s legal advisor raising a number of questions about the cityhood measure and its companion bill, which would have allowed the new city to purchase assets from the City of Atlanta for firesale prices.

The holes which the memo pointed out would have turned up anyway, and opposition to the bill was already pretty stout. But Kemp’s involvement insured a solidly bipartisan vote, and it appears to have convinced White that the game is up, at least for the time being.

“Unfortunately, now that Governor Kemp has displayed that he does not support our right to vote, there is no path forward for a cityhood referendum while he remains Governor until the end of his term in 2026,” White wrote in a statement released Monday.

Although that might seem pretty definitive, never doubt the capacity of kudzu to come back next year, no matter how vigorously you cut it back. “Although this is a farewell for now… we will never stop until Buckhead cityhood is on the ballot!” White added in a tweet.

White claimed in his statement that as late as two days before the vote, supporters of the measure were confident of victory, but the memo from Kemp’s office “changed everything.” That’s laying it on just a little too thickly. Considering how well-organized the opponents were during the debate, and the fact that supporters of the companion bills got no support from senators representing the city they sought to create, it’s hard to believe this bill was that close to passage. Blaming Kemp for everything sounds like a convenient way for the backers to get themselves off the hook.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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