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Sine Bye! Bills the Georgia Legislature Passed Before Leaving Atlanta

Throw your paper in the air like you just don’t care. Credit: Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder

The final day of the Georgia legislative session comes with many traditions, like throwing fistfulls of paper, wearing seersucker suits in early spring and, in recent years, failing to pass a bill to allow for medical cannabis.

Sine Die, pronounced “see-nay dee-ay” in Latin but “Sigh-nee Die” in Georgia, typically sees lawmakers scramble to get their favorite bills past the finish line before the 40-day session expires.

The legislature’s only constitutionally required job is to pass the state’s budget. This year, the House and Senate approved a $32.4 billion spending plan. Here’s a look at what other legislation made the cut—and what didn’t—in the last 24 hours of this year’s convening of lawmakers under the Gold Dome in Atlanta.

The Budget: The version of the $32.4 billion budget that both chambers passed featured increased funding for mental health services, foster children and salaries for law enforcement. It made cuts in other areas. 

The budget allocates $117 million to the Department for Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) for developmental disorders and mental health treatment. It also increased funds to address hoteling foster children. Hoteling is the process where high-needs foster children are placed in hotels if there is no foster home available. 

The budget made space for a $4,000 or $6,000 raise for some law enforcement officers and a salary increase for teachers and custodians. The budget restored HOPE Scholarship to cover 100% of tuition costs at public Georgia colleges. The budget for higher education was reduced overall, but the Board of Regents can decide where those cuts apply. 

The budget also cut Georgia Public Broadcasting’s state funding by about 10%.

House Appropriations Chair Rep. Matt Hatchett (R-Dublin) thanked the late Speaker David Ralston while presenting the budget. He said Ralston was like a father to him.

“I want to thank him for giving me the opportunity and teaching me how to persevere, because that’s what we’ve all done in this session,” Hatchett said while wearing one of Ralston’s ties given to him by Ralston’s widow.

HOPE and Higher Ed: The budget includes a $66 million cut to public colleges and universities, on top of $72 million from the state’s funding formula due to declining enrollment. University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue, a former governor, said the additional cut will hurt the 20 of 26 institutions that don’t have carryover funds from this year to fill the gap. The USG is also dealing with a pandemic-related 10% cut in 2020—about $231 million—that was never restored.

“This is an incredibly disappointing outcome, given the work done over the years by our state leaders to elevate higher education and send Georgia on a path to ascension,” Perdue said in a news release. “It will have a significant impact on institutions and the services that students and families depend on to advance their prosperity and help Georgia succeed.”

The University of Georgia is one of the six institutions with enough reserves to cover its $12 million share of the $66 million cut. However, the University of North Georgia, which has a campus in Watkinsville, will take a $2.5 million hit.

The USG found itself caught up in hospital politics during the session. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, whose father wants to sell property in Butts County for a new hospital, unsuccessfully sought to loosen regulations requiring a “certificate of need” to build a new hospital. Certificates of need are intended to ensure that hospitals provide a wide variety of medical services, rather than cater to the most financially lucrative patients and procedures, and to keep a new hospital from driving an older one out of business. Wellstar Health System, which owns a hospital nearby, opposed the legislation.

At the same time, Wellstar also has a letter of intent with Augusta University to take over operations of the medical school’s health-care system. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Blake Tillery (R-Valdosta) cut $105 million from the higher education budget, which the House partially restored. $105 million is the amount the legislature, at Kemp’s request, had earlier given Augusta University to improve its record-keeping system.

There is a chance the rest could be restored, as well, when the legislature convenes again next January and passes mid-year budget adjustments. Gov. Brian Kemp said the budget as passed includes “significant holes.”

Lawmakers did find funding, though, to boost the HOPE Scholarship back up to full tuition. Other than for a small group of elite Zell Miller scholars, the legislature cut back HOPE benefits during the Great Recession because of falling lottery revenue. That was done over the objections of some Democrats who argued for an income cap instead.

Private School Vouchers: Fans of school vouchers were hoping this would be the year Georgia would finally expand its nascent program to use millions in state taxpayer money for private school tuition.

Supporters say the plan would allow parents the choice to take their children out of poorly-performing public schools. Opponents call the plan a trick to siphon money from public education to less accountable private schools.

The plan got further along in the process than any other voucher plan in recent years, passing the Senate on a party-line vote, but it failed in the House, where a handful of Republicans joined nearly all Democrats to scuttle the bill.

Mental Health: A closely watched mental health bill stalled this year after getting caught up in the end-of-session politics between the legislature’s two chambers, though the Senate did end up passing a small portion of the measure before the clock ran out. That bill remains alive for next year, and proponents vowed to continue working on it.

“I’m disappointed, again, that the value that we saw in the mental health legislation was not shared in the Senate,” House Speaker Jon Burns told reporters after the final gavel. “It was not able to be moved forward. So we’ll continue to work together. We’ll continue to work with all the senators, not just the lieutenant governor, to ensure they see the value in the propositions we put forward that impact every family in this state.”

Crime Bills: Sen. Bo Hatchett’s anti-gang bill imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for street gang offenses and a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years for recruiting minors, meaning those convicted will not be eligible for reduced time.

Sen. Randy Robertson’s Senate Bill 63 would have added more than 30 criminal charges to the list of offenses, including marijuana possession, that require a person arrested to put up a cash bail or property as collateral in order to be released from jail. 

Democrats said the bills could result in harsh sentences for people convicted of minor crimes, reversing years of progress in criminal justice reform. Both bills failed.

Medical Cannabis: A planned fix for Georgia’s medical cannabis distribution fizzled in the Senate after senators were affronted at a 50-plus page bill that the House sent to their desks.

Parts of the bill were aimed at allowing the Secretary of Agriculture’s office to grant more licenses to produce low-THC oil for patients on a registry with serious illnesses. It would also abolish the state Medical Cannabis Commission and provide new regulations on hemp products.

Athens Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert said it would be impossible for lawmakers to know what was in the bill. “We are known as a deliberative body,” he said. “This is making a mockery of deliberations. You will remember back before Crossover Day, parts of this bill were on our floor, the hemp bill, and it was such a disaster, it ended up being reconsidered, being tabled, never got out of this chamber. This has been on our desk literally maybe two minutes before it was called up, three minutes, I haven’t had a chance to even read it.”

Missed at the Buzzer: The 2023 legislative session ended just past midnight without the Senate considering a bill legalizing sports betting.

Lawmakers wagered political capital on several failed attempts this session to open up the state to letting adults bet on sporting events. The last attempt, House Bill 237, never reached a full Senate vote.

A variety of sports betting bills failed to make it out of either chamber, from online wagering to voting on-site at licensed locations and other events via kiosks to a push to open up several horse race tracks.

The final gambit steered by Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Economic Development and Tourism Committee Chairman Brandon Beech was to tack sports betting onto a bill sponsored by Lyons Republican Rep. Leesa Hagan, who intended to get the southeast Georgia city’s 31-year-old soapbox derby declared the state’s official version of the homespun event.

A hijacked HB 237 called for the Georgia Lottery Corp. to have oversight over sports betting and for the revenue to be used for the same purpose as the state lottery’s HOPE collegiate scholarship and Pre-K programs.

More Election ‘Reform’: The controversial elections bill SB 222 won final approval from the Senate. The bill bans outside donations to elections boards. Republicans say it will prevent partisan interference in elections boards, but Democrats said that it will hurt underfunded and overburdened elections offices. The bill passed the Senate 32–21 and now heads to Kemp’s desk. 

Transgender Care: Two other controversial bills—one banning gender-affirming health care for minors and another creating an oversight board for prosecutors—passed earlier in the session. Kemp has already signed the former and, at press time, was expected to quickly sign the latter.

The bill to ban doctors from providing surgical or hormone treatments to transgender people under 18 years old was unexpectedly brought up for a vote Mar. 15 and quickly passed both chambers. Kemp signed it last week.

“Today, I signed SB 140 into law to ensure we protect the health and wellbeing of Georgia’s children,” Kemp wrote in a statement. “I appreciate the many hours of respectful debate and deliberation by members of the General Assembly that resulted in the final passage of this bill. As Georgians, parents and elected leaders, it is our highest responsibility to safeguard the bright, promising futures of our kids—and SB 140 takes an important step in fulfilling that mission.”

Doctors who violate the law could lose their licenses and, thanks to a House committee amendment, potentially be subject to civil or criminal action.

The bill is set to go into effect July 1, and transgender minors prescribed hormones before that date will be able to continue treatment. The bill will not limit puberty blocking medications, a provision author Sen. Carden Summers, a Cordele Republican, said is intended to offer a cooling down period before young people make a decision they may later regret.

Lawmakers said they had been contacted by Georgians who transitioned at a young age and grew to regret it, but none spoke at any of the bill’s legislative hearings. A large number of transgender youths, their parents and other supporters did come to the Capitol to plead against passage of the bill. One of them was Adam Phillips, 15, a transgender Savannah resident.

According to a 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement, surgical intervention is typically reserved for adults, but it can be offered to adolescents “on a case-by-case basis with the adolescent and the family along with input from medical, mental health, and surgical providers.” The APA notes that transgender children who receive care that acknowledges their gender identity tend to experience better academic and social outcomes. In practice, doctors say surgeries on minors are extremely rare, and hormones are not prescribed without much consideration. 

“I started testosterone about a week before I turned 14, which is obviously very young, and it’s very unusual, but that was because I came out at eight years old, and I was in therapy for five years before the conversation of HRT even was brought up,” Phillips said.

Phillips said hormone replacement therapy has improved his life, and though he may be grandfathered in, he worries for younger kids who will not be able to receive the care he did. “Before I was on HRT, I struggled to interact with my peers. I struggled to go outside and talk to people because I was just so scared and self conscious, and it was really negatively impacting my health and my mental well-being,” he said. “Being on HRT, it’s really just improved my well-being in every aspect and has really allowed me to thrive in school and with my peers. By not allowing people younger than me these opportunities, you’re not giving them the chance to really experience life.”

Litigation is expected. Democrats have argued that the bill could violate the 14th Amendment. “We will use every legal means at our disposal to block this bill from hurting children and families. It’s disturbing how quickly the governor acts to sign bills that take away people’s rights,” said Andrea Young, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

Meanwhile, right-wing groups and individuals are calling on the legislature to go further. In a tweet after the bill passed the House, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene criticized the bill for not restricting puberty blockers and for its “vague language that could make it easily thrown out in the courts.” Janae Stracke, Vice President of Field Operations for the right-wing lobbying firm Heritage Action, pledged to continue the fight to expand on the bill.

Prosecutors Persecuted?: On the 39th day of the 40-day legislative session, the GOP-controlled House approved the creation of a prosecuting attorneys oversight commission by a 92-77 vote, largely along party lines. The commission would have a five-member investigative panel and a three-member hearing panel to review complaints lodged against prosecutors and dish out punishment that could include removal from their elected office.

Senate Bill 92 also specifies the prosecutor’s and solicitor’s responsibilities, including reviewing each case individually to determine probable cause and making a charging decision based on the details of the case.

Democratic lawmakers and other critics argue that the Republicans’ plan removes prosecutorial discretion to deciding how cases should be prioritized in each community. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, investigating former President Donald Trump for election interference after he lost to President Joe Biden in 2020, called the legislation an overreaction. Republicans also criticized Athens-Clarke District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez after she said she would not prioritize low-level marijuana possession charges.

“We have grounds for removal, and it’s very narrow,” Dallas Republican Rep. Joseph Gullett said while defending the legislation. “If there’s a complaint there must be a sworn affidavit detailing personal knowledge of the facts supporting the complaint. If there’s disciplinary action, that can be appealed to the Superior Court of the county where the district attorney or solicitor general served.”

According to Lilburn Democratic Rep. Jasmine Clark, the bill gives the commission too much latitude to dismiss a prosecutor from office, including for not pursuing cases at their discretion. “Who decides what’s the willful and persistent failure to carry out their duties?” Clark asked during an hour-long debate Mar. 27. If the bill is signed, the commission will write and adopt the rules.

Flagpole News Editor Blake Aued; Ross Williams, Jill Nolin and Stanley Dunlap of the Georgia Recorder; and Sarah Kallis of GPB News contributed to this report.