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Georgia Lawmakers Keep Education Cuts and Ban Police Cuts

State Rep. Houston Gaines. Credit: House Media Service

Lawmakers considered several measures this session that critics argued were tone-deaf and ignored the pleas for police reform that followed 2020’s string of high-profile shootings of Black Americans. 

By the time the ceremonial tattered papers flew shortly after midnight, legislators had backed a bill that would prohibit city and county officials from cutting their police budget by more than 5%. But other controversial measures—such as an expansion of gun rights and a push to educate new drivers on how to interact with police officers—failed to make it to the governor’s desk. 

“Frankly, I thought we needed to be very, very sensitive to any gun legislation,” House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told reporters before the start of the last day of the session Mar. 31. “You know, we’re less than two weeks out from two major mass killings, and so that heightens my level of sensitivity to that.” Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in a series of shootings at Atlanta-area spas last month. Within a week, another mass shooting killed 10 people at a Boulder, CO grocery store. 

Lawmakers also came together to overhaul Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law, which was initially cited by the South Georgia prosecutor who did not file charges in the slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery last year. Demonstrators took to the streets last year to call for the law’s repeal. In the end, lawmakers drastically remade the law so only business owners and out-of-jurisdiction law enforcement officers could detain someone suspected of a crime. 

Gov. Brian Kemp announced early this session that rewriting the law would be one of his priorities for the year. “I look forward to signing it into law as we continue to send a clear message that the Peach State will not tolerate sinister acts of vigilantism in our communities,” Kemp said in a statement last week. 

GOP Blocks Nonexistent Police Cuts

Lawmakers also backed for a final time a contentious measure that is a response to calls to defund the police that became a rallying cry at demonstrations last summer. The measure would block cities and counties from reducing their police department budget by 5%, with a few exceptions. Two Georgia cities, Athens and Atlanta, considered changes to how their police agencies are funded last year. Both measures failed to pass.

“By outlawing any effort to defund the police, Georgia has put a stop to the liberal cities and far-left activists trying to enact their dangerous agenda across our state,” Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement after the vote.

Democrats accused GOP lawmakers of undercutting local decision-makers and bypassing a broader conversation on policing in favor of scoring quick political points. “No matter how we vote on this bill today, the fact remains that everyone wants to live in a safe community. Everyone wants to live in a safe community and these local governments know best how to keep their community safe,” said Teri Anulewicz, a Smyrna Democrat. [Stanley Dunlap and Jill Nolin]

Education Cuts Stay in Budget

State lawmakers finalized a $27.2 billion spending plan for next year, although it remains to be seen how exactly the state will dispatch the billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief money that will soon flood Georgia.

Both chambers overwhelmingly approved the budget on the final day of this year’s legislative session, Mar. 31, sending it to the governor’s desk. The budget takes effect July 1.

Kemp did not make his traditional last-day visit to the chambers, since he is quarantining after coming in contact recently with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. But he did leave lawmakers with a letter Wednesday addressing a lingering question: Would federal funds be used to erase the rest of the budget cuts made last summer when revenues were expected to plummet?

Kemp wrote that he is still awaiting more specifics from the U.S. Treasury on how the funds can be spent, but the $4.6 billion in federal aid will likely not fill those holes since state revenues defied the dire predictions that spurred lawmakers to cut $2.2 billion last year. “As a result of our measured and balanced approach in response to COVID-19, our economy is strong, and current projections for FY 2022 are greater than collections in FY 2019,” the governor wrote.

That is cold comfort to lawmakers who are dismayed to see nearly $382 million in reductions to public education remain in the budget. But the legislature’s top budget writers argue that the $4 billion in federal aid for K-12 schools will more than make up for the lost state funds.

To highlight the federal boost to schools, handouts showing the amount of federal aid flowing to individual districts were distributed to lawmakers Wednesday. “So, the reduction of the $382 million is—I won’t say minuscule because dollars do matter, I understand that—but I would say pennies on the dollar to the federal [additions],” said Sen. Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, questioned if the plan is to continue the cuts because of one-time federal funding. Tillery, though, offered an alternative view: The federal funds have allowed the state to shift state funds to other areas of need, pointing to the nearly $36 million increase for mental health services. [Jill Nolin]

Lawmakers, Companies Spar Over Voting

After weeks of pressure from protesters, major Georgia businesses, including Delta Air Lines, are taking a stronger stance against the sweeping voting bill signed by Kemp that opponents say will make it more difficult to cast a ballot, especially for minority voters.

“I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values,” wrote CEO Ed Bastian in a memo to employees Mar. 31. “The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections. This is simply not true. Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights.”

Delta had not been the agenda for the last day of the 2021 Georgia legislative session, but that quickly changed. House lawmakers narrowly passed a bill to repeal a tax break on jet fuel, the same tactic Republicans used in 2018 after the airline revoked a discount for National Rifle Association members following a high-profile school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

Rep. Sam Watson (R-Moutrie) added the language to a bill relating to tax credits, sparking outrage from House Democrats. “This has nothing to do with the Department of Revenue, but it’s purely retaliation for the business community speaking out on a bill that everyone feels is Jim Crow 2.0,” said Minority Whip David Wilkerson of Powder Springs.

House Speaker David Ralston acknowledged that the proposal was a response to Delta’s statement. “They like our public policy when we’re doing things that benefit them, and they reap the rewards of those benefits and then turn around and do this,” the Blue Ridge Republican told reporters. “As all of you know, I can’t resist a country boy line or two, you don’t feed a dog that bites your hand. You’ve got to keep that in mind.”

The measure did not receive a vote in the Senate, so it will not become law this year. But it could be revisited during next year’s legislative session, Ralston said.

Bastian’s memo followed rising calls for a boycott of Delta and other major Atlanta businesses, including Coca-Cola, Home Depot and UPS.

As lawmakers gathered Wednesday morning at the Capitol for a marathon final day, one group of protesters and religious leaders gathered at nearby Trinity United Methodist Church to protest against a provision in the law that bars handing out water to people waiting in line to vote.

There, the Rev. Fer-Rell Malone of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church said corporations that do not protect Black votes should not expect to get business from Black people.

“Corporations and businesses, you cannot suck on the breast of the Black community and not be held accountable,” he said. “You cannot ride on the prosperous economics of our community and not represent and fight for and defend our rights. We will no longer be your booty call. We will no longer be your side piece.”

Leading Georgia Democrats, including Stacey Abrams, have resisted calls for a boycott.

“One lesson of boycotts is that the pain of deprivation must be shared to be sustainable,” Abrams wrote for USA Today. “Otherwise, those least resilient bear the brunt of these actions; and in the aftermath, they struggle to access the victory. And boycotts are complicated affairs that require a long-term commitment to action. I have no doubt that voters of color, particularly Black voters, are willing to endure the hardships of boycotts. But I don’t think that’s necessary—yet.”

Coca-Cola also came out stronger than ever against the new law Wednesday, with CEO James Quincey calling it a “step backwards” on CNBC’s “Power Lunch.” Ralston said he felt that statement was out of line as well, and jokingly suggested that he was holding his own boycott. “I don’t drink a lot of soft drinks, but I bought a Pepsi the other day, and they’re not that bad,” he said. [Ross Williams]

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