The Georgia General Assembly has earned a reputation for being one of America’s most conservative legislative bodies. When Republicans outnumber Democrats by two-to-one, you wouldn’t expect otherwise. You would still be surprised at some of the bills that moved during this year’s session. Many of these measures were actually very liberal in their methods and goals. Senate Bill 318, for example, allows bars and taverns to open on Sunday if St. Patrick’s Day should happen to fall on a Monday, as it does this year. There was a time when such a bill would not even have been introduced for fear of arousing the wrath of religious conservatives. Not this year. The St. Patrick’s Day Sunday bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal in plenty of time for the Irish celebration.
Think about House Bill 885, which would legalize the limited use of cannabis oil, a marijuana derivative, for the treatment of seizure disorders in children. For a long time, the legalization of marijuana was something that only hippie potheads cared about. If ever there was an issue for liberals, it’s this one. But HB 885 passed the House by a vote of 171-4 and was seriously considered by many conservative lawmakers.
Look at HB 697, a bill to increase HOPE grant awards for about 20 percent of technical college students so that it pays their full tuition. Lawmakers put extra money into the budget for HB 697 with the goal of encouraging more Georgians to take job training courses at the state’s technical schools. My conservative friends get very upset when you talk about spending additional public money on education. They tell me you can’t improve schools by taking the liberal approach of “throwing money at them.” But in fact, that’s what the sponsors of HB 697 were trying to do for our technical schools—and a lot of conservative Republicans voted for that bill.
In the area of healthcare, Sens. Tim Golden (R-Valdosta) and Renee Unterman (R-Buford) introduced SB 397, a bill that would require insurance companies to cover the costs of treating children for autism. SB 397 passed the Senate by a unanimous vote, with not a single conservative senator voting against it. SB 397 does the same thing for similar reasons as the Affordable Care Act. The bill takes a specific medical condition—autism—and mandates that insurance companies will cover the costs of treating that condition. A majority of the Legislature hates Obamacare—but a large number of those lawmakers voted for a bill that is not much different from President Obama’s healthcare act.
A similar bill was HB 943, sponsored by Rep. Lee Hawkins (R-Gainesville). This bill would require health insurers to provide “parity of coverage” for both intravenous and oral forms of chemotherapy cancer treatments. There were some strong similarities between this bill and Obamacare—but it passed.
The Legislature even adopted a bill authorizing a monument on the capitol grounds to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Liberal Democrats have tried for years, without success, to get this bill passed. Conservative lawmakers provided the votes this year to make it happen.
It’s important to keep all of this in perspective. At the same time that the House and Senate approved a bill to put King’s statue on the capitol grounds, they also passed legislation to build a Ten Commandments monument in the same locale. Republicans additionally sponsored bills to allow guns in bars, churches and public buildings, along with a measure to require food stamp applicants to pass a drug test.
The General Assembly is still a very conservative institution, but it’s fascinating to see the support for bills that use liberal methods to achieve liberal policy objectives. It goes to show you never can tell.