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Culture War Bills Mostly Fizzle on the Georgia Legislature’s Last Day in Session

It’s tradition for lawmakers to throw paper when the 40-day legislative session gavels out. Credit: Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder

State lawmakers closed out the 2024 legislative session with a flurry of votes that spilled over into the early morning hours.

But the night ended with some of the most closely watched bills—like a bill banning puberty blockers for minors and a proposal to put sports betting on the ballot this fall—fizzling out in the House.

The last votes were taken well after the traditional midnight deadline and in a fog of confusion. Paper airplanes, balls and tatters were already flying around the House as lawmakers waited anxiously for the speaker to yell “Sine Die!” Some House lawmakers had already left when they were called back to their desks shortly before 1 a.m. to pass a bill renaming roads and another that increases the state’s homestead exemption in a move to give property owners some tax relief.

But the final day offered its share of controversial bills, too. Republican lawmakers signed off on a wide-ranging election measure Thursday, prompting the ACLU of Georgia to immediately issue a statement saying it would file a lawsuit if the governor signs the bill into law.

And GOP leaders pushed through a bill designed to punish sheriffs who do not enforce federal immigration laws, though another related bill did not survive. These bills gained momentum after the death of a nursing student on the University of Georgia’s campus, which has become a political flashpoint nationally.

One of the biggest storylines of the session, though, wrapped up last week. After months of chatter, a proposal to fully expand Medicaid failed in a Senate committee. Instead, lawmakers passed changes to the state’s health care business regulations and created a commission that will look at fully expanding Medicaid.

“I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this, but I’ll say it again: There’s nothing that the House cannot talk about, that we can’t discuss,” Speaker Jon Burns told reporters early Friday morning. “And we can look for the facts on it to see how it may impact our state.”

Burns said those conversations will continue this summer as the commission gets to work. But he also said he thought the governor’s partial expansion plan is “gaining some momentum.” About 3,500 people have signed up for Pathways to Coverage, which launched last summer.

No Statue for Clarence Thomas

House lawmakers took a pass on voting on a proposal calling for a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is from Georgia.

The proposed tribute to the controversial figure was met with intense opposition in the Senate the last two years. State senators wanted to place the statue on the state Capitol grounds as a high honor.

House lawmakers explored alternatives this week. A proposal floated earlier this week would have put the statue of Thomas within the nearby Nathan Deal Judicial Center, along with statues of other Supreme Court justices from Georgia. Three other justices called Georgia home.

A revised House plan would have limited the tribute to just Thomas but kept it at the judicial center. The Senate mimicked that idea and tacked it onto another bill, but in the end, the proposal was never called up for a vote in the House.

Effort to Protect Okefenokee Sinks

A late attempt to impose a three-year moratorium on new mining permits near the Okefenokee Swamp hit a brick wall in the Senate.

Under pressure, House lawmakers used a legislative maneuver Tuesday to usher forward the proposal.

The bill was a scaled-down version of another House proposal that had picked up opposition from environmental groups. Specifically, it calls for a moratorium on dragline mining—the method Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals plans to use at Trail Ridge—in previously untouched areas like Trail Ridge.

Like other proposals, it would not have stopped Twin Pines from mining for titanium dioxide and zirconium at a nearly 600-acre demonstration site about three miles from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Rep. Lynn Smith, a Newnan Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, said the bill is intended to have the effect of “quieting things down.” Another bill that would permanently block new or expanded mining permits at Trail Ridge was stuck in Smith’s committee despite having more than 91 signers—enough support to clear the full House. It passed out of the House Tuesday with a 167-to-4 vote, though some voted for it with reservations.

“Although I’m not really in love with this bill, and I’m not ever going to be for the mining… this is the only thing we can do right now to save the swamp. It’s the only option,” said Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Junction City Democrat.

Buckner said she hoped a three-year moratorium would at least buy opponents of mining near the Okefenokee some time to figure out a way to “save the swamp.”

But the bill faced an even cooler reception in the Senate. Majority Leader Steve Gooch said on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Politically Georgia podcast Thursday that he thought the state Environmental Protection Division should be left alone to decide what should be done.

The EPD issued draft permits last month and is in the process of collecting public input on those permits. Those permits have faced intense public opposition.

“If we began the process of circumventing the rule makers and the regulatory agencies on this issue, then the next issue will be landfills, quarries, water treatment, wastewater treatment, so the list goes on and on and on,” the Dahlonega Republican said.

Transgender Bills Die

Two bills watched with dread by transgender Georgians and their allies withered away in the wee hours Friday morning after the House took no action on them on the final day of the 2024 legislative session.

Every year under the Gold Dome brings new battles in the culture wars and bills often based more upon ideology than practicality, nestled firmly within the crusty crannies of the cultural divide.

This year, as in previous years, questions of ethical appropriateness centered largely on transgender children, but unlike in recent years, trans kids made it through Sine Die without new restrictions—despite two bills out of the Senate that would have banned transgender children from playing on sports teams or using restrooms corresponding with their gender identities, and blocked them from accessing puberty blocking drugs.

Both passed the Senate on party lines, but neither got a House vote Thursday.

“We know there’s some things, we know there’s some issues, social issues, if you will, that are important to Georgians,” Burns said to reporters after the House adjourned. “And there’s some of them that we embrace, but they’re also—we know there’s a time. And timing was maybe not right today for some of those issues that came over from the Senate.”

“We’ll continue to work with the Senate and look at those issues and make some determinations on what’s good for all Georgians in every walk of life,” he added. “And so we’re conscious of those issues. They’re priorities—many of them are, but they’re maybe not the same ones as the Senate.”

Cole Muzio, president of the conservative Frontline Policy lobbying group, called the bills’ failure to pass “a missed opportunity.”

“Both of those issues are broadly supported by a lot of Georgians,” he said. “And I think as people prepare to go to the polls in November, as they’re looking for what they expect out of this building, that’s the kind of bold action they are looking for. Obviously, a lot of good things happened in this building this year. Georgia needs to turn in the right direction, but we’ve a lot to do heading into 2025, and so we’re excited to add those onto our agenda then and we’ll be back tomorrow.”

House Democrats expressed relief when the chamber adjourned close to 1 a.m. without taking up the controversial measures.

“I’m happy that we did not pass legislation that would have caused a lot of real harm for a very vulnerable population, transgender youth,” said Lawrenceville Rep. Sam Park, Democratic Caucus whip and the first openly gay man elected to the General Assembly. “It’s a reminder that despite the polarized political environment that we’re in, that we can still come together and move Georgia forward by, again, not passing a very dangerous and harmful piece of legislation. It’s been a tough legislative session, but yeah, I think we ended just fine.”

Puberty Blockers

Under the pen of Senate Education and Youth Committee Chair Clint Dixon, House Bill 1170, which originally put opioid reversal drugs into government buildings, instead became an effort to ban puberty-blocking drugs for transgender minors.

These drugs, originally used by children who enter puberty too early, have been used in recent years by kids with gender dysphoria to put off going through a puberty that doesn’t match their views of themselves. Last year, the state banned hormone therapy, or prescribing testosterone or estrogen, to minors, but allowed puberty blockers to remain as what GOP lawmakers called a compromise.

Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder Sen. Ben Watson discusses his bill banning transgender teens from taking puberty blockers. Credit: Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder

Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah physician who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said also forbidding doctors from prescribing drugs to prevent children from going through puberty will make parents’ jobs easier.

“Last year and this year, many parents have come to me privately wishing that this law was in effect in the past,” he said. “And I find that affirming, I find that sometimes challenging, from that perspective, it is difficult, no doubt, being a parent, and sometimes saying no is difficult, but saying no, many times, with the law behind you makes it easier.”

Watson said the effects of puberty blockers can be permanent, and he hoped to prevent minors from making life-altering decisions.

“Surgery is irreversible. Sex change hormones are irreversible, and puberty blockers can also be irreversible,” he said. “With the fact that if you’re not on puberty blockers, half of the children do not go on to proceed changing their sex, I think that’s very important. With the puberty blockers, virtually 100% go ahead and do sex change hormones. I think we need to give the children continued mental health counseling, continued care, continued love.”

Many transgender people say going through what they often call the wrong puberty was a difficult time.

“It can really make a big difference. I started before I turned 18, and that was before SB 140, and that was a big hot-button issue for some people, but I can’t tell you how happy that made me,” said Lucas Tucker, a transgender man from Decatur who came to the Capitol to speak against anti-trans bills in committee hearings. “If I wasn’t on them now, I would not be the person I am. It really makes a huge difference.”

“Giving trans children access to their bathrooms and their hormone therapy and things like that will save them,” he added. “Because people make fun of us. They say, oh, 40% or whatever of trans people kill themselves. You know why? It’s because of you. It’s because you make it possible for us to do that. You enforce legislation that shoves us back in the closet. And for a lot of people, being in the closet is the same as being dead, because you can’t live in the closet.”

Christmas Tree Bills

Senators placed provisions banning transgender students from playing on sports teams or using restrooms conforming with their gender identity, as well as a ban on sex education before 6th grade and provisions allowing parents to more easily monitor the books their children check out from school libraries, into House Bill 1104. That measure was originally a bill from Decatur Democratic Rep. Omari Crawford that was intended to address mental health and suicide risks for student athletes.

Such bills are sometimes called Christmas tree bills because they are adorned with amendments like a Christmas tree is covered in decorations.

As he left the chamber early Friday morning, Crawford said he hopes to come back next year and push for his original bill, which he says will protect student athletes’ mental health.

“I’m glad that the bill and the Senate substitute did not pass,” he said. “There was a lot of language that I didn’t agree with, and so what we’ll try to do next year is make sure that language that was the intention of the bill is reintroduced, hopefully we can pass that.”

Renter Protections

A proposal to increase protections for Georgia renters is now in the governor’s hands after receiving a final vote in the House on Mar. 26.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kasey Carpenter (R-Dalton), sailed through the House a year ago before stalling in the Senate. The measure fared better in the Senate this year, advancing with only a minor change and finding overwhelming support last week.

Under the measure, rental properties must be “fit for human habitation” and security deposits are capped at two months’ rent. It also requires landlords to give tenants a three-day grace period after failing to pay rent and bars them from turning off the air conditioning during an eviction process.

“For the first in Georgia code we are going to put ‘fit for human habitation’ for the rights of tenants across this state,” Carpenter said.

The North Georgia lawmaker gave an emotional speech last year, recalling the hardships of his own childhood growing up in Whitfield County. He said at the time his family moved 16 times in 18 years, mostly living in rental properties. When he was 17, his family spent a three-month period during one winter without heat.

“We always try to say Georgia is the best place to work and play but sometimes for some folks, it’s not always the best place to live,” Carpenter said. “This legislation will move that ball forward so we protect Georgia renters.” 

House Speaker Jon Burns celebrated the bill’s final passage, calling on lawmakers to applaud themselves.

Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican who carried the bill in the Senate, called the provisions “common sense standards.”

Carpenter has said the bill is in response to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 2022 investigation that showed how the business practices of apartment owners have trapped Atlanta-area renters in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. 

These stories originally appeared at