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Columns Tom Baxter

Not all the bills in the legislature are primed to the election year, but lots are

By Tom Baxter

You can always tell it’s an election year by the bills that get introduced at the beginning of the General Assembly session.

Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced “red meat” bills designed to stir up their respective bases, including the Republican bill banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, the governor’s constitutional carry bill and the Democratic bill requiring training to own a firearm.

However, Gov. Brian Kemp may have put the quietus on one likely source of election-year legislating when he declared last week that there was no reason to revisit the state’s election laws after the passage last year of “the best elections integrity act in the country.”

Both Republican candidates for lieutenant governor have voting bills: a proposal by Sen. Butch Miller to eliminate drop boxes, and by Sen. Burt Jones to go to paper ballots. Kemp’s coolness may not dissuade either from moving forward with bills. It could also set up another joust with former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Jones. But without control of the veto pen and a unified Republican front, the chance of either bill winning passage is not much greater than the Democratic firearm bill.

The critical race theory bill, House Bill 888, has the cookie-cutter language of a bill drafted somewhere else and passed out to legislators in various states. It also has the looks of an enormous can of worms. Its text says it deals with “the treatment of race and other individual traits and beliefs” in schools, without any mention thereafter of “traits and beliefs” or what those words might mean.

In the hands of a good lawyer, portions of the bill could be used to do the opposite of what the bill’s supporters intend. It puts significant new administrative burdens on the schools, not to mention the burdens on teaching itself. It requires that a long list of subjects, from women’s suffrage to the Pledge of Allegiance, be taught, and yet it says no teacher or school official can “compel or attempt to compel any individual to engage in or observe a discussion of any public policy issue.” How do you do both?

Both sides are going to spend a lot of time in the well and kick up a lot of dust over this bill, but despite its incautious sweep, it’s a good bet this won’t be the biggest or most hotly debated school bill the General Assembly considers this year. That is likely to be Senate Bill 328, which would bust up the Georgia High School Association and give authority over high school athletics to a nonprofit organization to be created by the State Board of Education.

In some election years the red-meat legislation crowds out the more workaday often bipartisan legislation that gets taken up at other times, but this year there’s a good sprinkling of bills that won’t rile up voters, but tackle issues that need to be addressed.

The bills introduced by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver which tighten the rules for state development authorities and the annexation process for local governments are a good example of this happy development. So are a group of Senate bills supported by a core group of doctors: Republicans Kay Kirkpatrick, Dean Burke, Ben Watson and anesthetist Chuck Hufstetler, joined by Democrat Michelle Au.

Most of these bills are of limited interest outside the medical field. One, for instance, deals with the accreditation of teaching hospitals. Another increases Medicaid post-partum coverage from six to 12 months, and another creates a “Green Call” system to protect service members and veterans under mental duress from harming themselves.

But these bills represent the emergence of what is probably the biggest medical caucus the General Assembly has ever had, and in coming years they could become a force to be reckoned with.

Oh, have we mentioned the bill which prohibits state and local governments from requiring vaccine passports, or the one which limits the display on public property of the Confederate flag? There will be plenty of election-year bills from both parties, but maybe this year there will also be some real work done.

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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1 Comment

  1. Larry Savage January 29, 2022 10:05 am

    Tom, the bill by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (HB-25) is a “nothingburger”. It adds language giving school districts authority they didn’t need to intervene in bond validations when development authorities issue revenue bonds to create tax abatements for developers. The existing law says ANYONE can intervene in a bond validation. My guess is that she now gets her legal advice from bond lawyers.Report


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