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Voting, Police Funding and More Bills Get Kemp’s Approval

Gov. Brain Kemp. Credit: Adria Carpenter/file

With the General Assembly’s 2020 session long in the books, the deadline for Gov. Brian Kemp to sign or veto bills passed last week. Here’s a look at legislation he signed or vetoed.

Voting Rights: By far the most attention-grabbing bill of the session was Senate Bill 202, the infamous cobbled-together voting bill that led Major League Baseball to move the All-Star Game out of Cobb County and set off a feud among civil rights groups, Republican lawmakers and some of Georgia’s biggest corporations.

While much of the outcry has focused on a provision regarding the distribution of food and water in voting lines, that’s not all the bill does. It formalizes the drop boxes for absentee ballots used during the 2020 elections, but limits their numbers, locations and hours. It reduces the window of time for voters to request an absentee ballot and requires them to provide photo ID. It adds a weekend day of early voting. It strips power from the secretary of state—a Republican who defended the process against Trump supporters—and hands it to a new State Election Board chair appointed by the legislature. And it allows the state to take over the local county boards that actually run elections and count the votes. 

The bill was primarily a response to widespread (and disproven) allegations of voter fraud by Republicans in the wake of Joe Biden’s victory and two Senate runoff wins for Democrats. Critics like Stacey Abrams and Sen. Raphael Warnock have called it Jim Crow 2.0. But Kemp called it “a really good bill.”

Defunding Police: Kemp signed a controversial bill sponsored by Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) barring local governments from “defunding the police.” The bill prevents cities and counties from cutting police budgets by more than 5% unless revenue declines or they hold public hearings.

“Radical movements like the ‘defund the police’ movement seek to vilify the men and women who leave their families every day and put their lives on the line to protect all Georgians,” Kemp said at a signing ceremony at the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office gun range, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This far-left movement will endanger our communities and our law enforcement officers and leave our most vulnerable at risk.”

The bill garnered national attention for Gaines, a potential congressional candidate, but is unlikely to have any impact on local police. While two Athens-Clarke County commissioners introduced a plan last year to gradually reallocate police funding toward social services, the commission ultimately put more money into the police department and appears poised to do so again this year.

Citizen’s Arrest: In the wake of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in Brunswick last year, Kemp pushed to overhaul Georgia’s antiquated citizen’s arrest law, and the reform bill passed unanimously. Originally created in 1863, the law now only applies to self-defense, protecting one’s home, preventing a violent felony or to business employees or security guards who believe someone stole something.

“I think the state of Georgia is moving in the right direction with the passing of this particular bill,” said Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones. “Unfortunately, I had to lose my son to get significant change, but again, I’m still thankful.”

Political Fundraising: Up until now, state lawmakers have been barred from campaign fundraising during the legislative session to reduce the influence of lobbyists—a restriction they’ve often chafed against, saying it gives their challengers a leg up. But while many apparently believe voters can be swayed with a bottle of water, now they’ve created a loophole to accept unlimited campaign dollars while in session. Signed by Kemp, the law allows each House and Senate caucus to set up two “leadership committees” to receive such donations.

Other Bills: In addition, Kemp signed legislation, also sponsored by Gaines, creating three weeks of paid parental leave for state employees; extending a rule allowing restaurants to serve mixed drinks to-go in an effort to help them get through the pandemic; and reviewing corporate tax breaks to see if they create jobs. He vetoed a measure creating the new position of chief labor officer to share power with the elected labor commissioner, passed in response to complaints about delays in obtaining unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

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