Dozens of bills cleared a key legislative deadline last week, with some controversial measures—like a ban on some gender-affirming care—squeaking by as the clock wound down.
And in the House, what didn’t come up for a vote at all was notable: sports betting. The bill likely represented the last shot this session had at expanding gambling in Georgia beyond the lottery after two proposals were rejected in the Senate, but the House adjourned without putting it to a vote. “This year was not the right time for it in the House,” Speaker Jon Burns told reporters late on Mar. 6.
Some of the most spirited debate in the House Monday happened on a bill creating oversight panels for local prosecutors and another measure that would increase weight limits for tractor-trailers, which narrowly survived with a 93–81 vote.
Here’s a rundown on some of the other highlights from Crossover Day, which is the legislature’s self-imposed deadline for a bill to get a vote in at least one chamber. However, even bills that failed to cross the threshold could be revived if their language is inserted into another bill that has.
Panel Could Discipline DAs
Georgia’s GOP-controlled House passed controversial legislation 98–75 late on Tuesday’s Crossover Day that would establish oversight boards that could remove district attorneys deemed to neglect select prosecutions.
Dallas Republican Rep. Joseph Gullett’s House Bill 231 would require the Georgia Supreme Court to appoint five-member investigation panels and three-member hearing panels that will determine disciplinary consequences for prosecutors who decline to prosecute low-level offenses. Among the grounds for removing district attorneys and solicitor generals are willful and prejudicial misconduct or being found to have mental or physical disabilities that impede their abilities to prosecute cases. The Senate advanced a similar bill last week, with Republican lawmakers supporting the measures opposed by prosecuting and district attorney associations.
Democratic legislators have questioned the necessity of an oversight committee that can target the discretion prosecutors already have to determine the merits of cases and pointed out that district attorneys can already face disciplinary measures if they have breached duties.
District attorneys like Deborah Gonzalez in Athens and Fulton County’s Fani Willis, who is pursuing a probe of former President Donald Trump, have complained the legislation is an overreaction.
“Their prosecutorial discretion is vital to allowing our locally elected D.A.’s to examine the specific facts of each case when deciding if and how to prosecute, and that’s threatened under this bill,” Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, a Lithonia Democrat, said.
Gullett defended the measure by stating that the state Supreme Court would review any disciplinary action related to complaints filed and subsequent panel decisions. “This is not a partisan issue in my mind regarding who’s acting in bad faith as a D.A.,” he said hours before Monday’s deadline for legislation to advance to the opposite chamber. “This is vitally important to communities who have district attorneys who are bad actors and not prosecuting cases or doing things illegally, and ultimately just bringing really really bad light to their offices.”
Voucher Expansion Passes Senate
Georgia’s limited school voucher program could be extended after the Senate passed a toned-down version on a party-line vote Mar. 6. The bill would provide $6,000 to parents who pull their children out of public schools ranked in the bottom 25% of the state. A previous version applied to nearly all students.
“I would actually argue to you that we have two paths in public school right now, the haves and the have-nots, and this bill levels the playing field for parents who want to get their kids out of schools that are in the lower 25% of all the schools in the state, and gives those parents help they may otherwise [not] have,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming).
Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) accused Republicans of sabotaging public schools. Georgia has not updated its school funding formula since it was created in 1985 and is one of six states that do not allocate extra money to children whose families are affected by poverty, she said. “It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here,” she said. “You ruin the schools so they don’t have credibility, you don’t give them the money they need to do a basic job, which is on us, and then use that as an excuse to weaken them further.”
Defining Anti-Semitism Draws Debate
A measure that would define antisemitism in state code was approved by the House, where it encountered free speech concerns.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Carson (R-Marietta), defers to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition and directs state agencies to consult the definition when applying Georgia’s anti-discrimination and hate crime laws. Proponents argue the definition is needed to spell out what antisemitism is, giving prosecutors a guide when parsing out intent when a crime has been committed.
“Protections for Jewish people do not come at the expense of anyone else—except antisemites,” said Rep. Esther Panitch (D-Sandy Springs).
Panitch, who is the only Jewish state lawmaker in Georgia, was among those recently targeted by antisemitic flyers that were thrown onto properties in predominantly Jewish areas of Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. Similar flyers were placed on driveways in Cobbham and Boulevard last month.
But some Democrats questioned the need to define antisemitism when the hate crimes law passed in 2020 includes acts targeting someone because of the victim’s religion.
“By creating a definition for antisemitism, when antisemitic acts are already covered in statute, it begs the question as to why the Georgia code does not define anti-Black racism or anti-Latino racism or anti-Asian racism,” said Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat who voted against the bill. “Each of these groups could make the argument that they have been subjected to an increase and acts of violence over the years.”
Rep. El-Mahdi Holly (D-Stockbridge) argued the alliance’s definition equates hate speech with “sharp criticism of the State of Israel as a political government.”
“How far will you go to police our words? Perhaps anyone using the N-word past or present can be charged with a hate crime,” Holly said.
The bill passed with a 136-22 vote and headed to the Senate.
House Backs Homebuilding Bill
A proposal limiting a local government’s ability to stop new residential building has passed the House, but lawmakers balked at a more controversial plan to curb local regulations on home construction standards.
The bill that has gained traction, HB 514, cleared the House Monday 127–43 and goes now to the Senate. It’s part of the GOP-controlled legislature’s response to rising housing prices.
The measure would bar local governments from putting a moratorium on new single-family homes for more than 180 days. The measure included exemptions for state of emergency declarations, natural disasters or when the local government has contracted with a third party to complete a study on public utilities. In addition, the bill would allow local governments to waive “impact fees,” which are tied to costs for public infrastructure on residential housing under 2,500 square feet, as an incentive for homebuilders.
“We all know that our state is growing and growing rapidly, and the people have to have a place to live,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dale Washburn (R-Macon). “We are always applauding that growth and applauding the growth of the industry that’s coming.
“The reality is if a local community can just declare a moratorium and say, ‘Well we just don’t want anybody else coming,’ then we are allowing them to build economic walls around that county and city,” Washburn said.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns. “What happens at 180 days if school projects haven’t been addressed or roads aren’t prepared or water systems aren’t in place? Will they be able to move forward without that?” said Rep. Darlene Taylor, a Thomasville Republican who voted against the bill. Washburn’s answer: Local governments can’t refuse to issue permits if 180 days have lapsed.
Tax on Digital Books and Games
Legislators in the House passed a tax that would tax digital downloads in the same way physical content, like a book, is taxed when purchased at the store.
HB 170 passed on Crossover Day with a 162–10 vote and now moves over to the Senate. If signed into law, it would make e-books, video games and other types of digital video-audio works a little more expensive.
“We wanted to make sure that our brick-and-mortar stores that sell video games that sell books that are taxed in our community are facing a parity in the taxation system across the internet as well,” said Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Dalton Republican and the bill’s sponsor.
The 4% tax would take effect next year and would apply to digital products such as magazines, photos and digital applications. But electronic fund transfers, loans, online classes and advertising services are excluded from the tax.
The authors of the bill are also not pursuing a tax on streaming services like Netflix, for now. Such attempts have failed in the past. But Carpenter said that is something that needs to be looked at as subscription-based services become more prevalent.
As for mom-and-pop shops that serve as vital community hubs, and have to pay property taxes, the bill will build support for these businesses that struggle to compete with online retail sales, proponents argue.
“We’re seeing traditional brick-and-mortar businesses suffer because of the unequal playing field that internet sales have caused,” said Rep. David Knight (R-Griffin), “and that’s a detriment to our communities.”
Jill Nolin, Ross Williams, Stanley Dunlap and Aaleah McConnell contributed to this article, which first appeared at georgiarecorder.com.
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