With a flurry of tossed papers and bleary-eyed cheers of “Sine Die!,” the Georgia General Assembly ended its 2021 session early Thursday morning, capping off a busy stretch of campaigning, coronavirus and controversial decisions. After three months and 40 legislative days, Georgia lawmakers have passed a number of high-profile bills — and left many on the cutting room floor until next year.
The most important bills include a $27.2 billion budget that funds state agencies from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2022, an overhaul of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute, a slight income tax cut for many Georgians and paid parental leave for state employees.
Controversial measures approved include a ban on local governments defunding the police and a 98-page voting law that alters virtually every part of the state’s election system.
Efforts to loosen gun laws just weeks after deadly mass shootings in metro Atlanta and Colorado failed to make it to a vote, along with other contentious measures on sports betting, police interactions and prosecutorial misconduct.
One of the largest accomplishments was the legislature’s overhaul of the state’s citizen’s arrest law, HB 479. Georgia will become the first state to nix a Civil War-era provision tied to recovering fugitive slaves and lynchings, and instead offer a limited definition and scope of who can detain someone they believe committed a crime, such as private investigators or store owners.
Georgia’s next fiscal year budget adds back some funding after steep cuts enacted by lawmakers last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. K-12 education, a dedicated public safety training facility for de-escalation and proper use of force, a rural innovation fund and mental health services all will see fuller coffers.
“It’s much more enjoyable to rebuild a budget, but it’s certainly no less complicated,” House Appropriations Chairman Terry England said. “It’s not just enough to refill cuts or reductions that have been made in previous years, but to go in and look at those funds that you’re putting back to make sure that they’re being put back in the proper place.”
Taxes and spending
Gov. Brian Kemp has already signed several measures into law, such as HB 593 which will save a married couple about $100 a year on their taxes by increasing the standard deduction starting in 2022 but also could lower the state’s revenue by about $140 million. Kemp also signed HB 114, increasing the state’s adoption tax credit from $2,000 a year to $6,000 annually for five years.
Nearly a quarter of a million state employees will soon get three weeks of paid parental leave under HB 146, and all Georgians of age could soon be able to order cocktails to go thanks to SB 236.
There is also continuing controversy over SB 202, a 98-page voting law that adds new absentee ID requirements, codifies drop boxes but limits when and where they can be used, expands in-person early voting access for primaries and general elections but limits it during a newly shortened runoff period, and other changes. Kemp quickly signed it into law after it passed last Thursday and has faced an avalanche of criticism and misinformation about what the bill actually does. Three different federal lawsuits have been filed already.
Those that missed out
But not everything lawmakers propose or push for made it through this time, though they can still return next January for the second year of a biennial session.
There was no vote on a bill that would have loosened gun restrictions to allow reciprocity with concealed weapons permits and would have stopped the state from shutting down gun permits, gun sales and shooting ranges in a state of emergency. House Speaker David Ralston said after the session that, among other reasons, he was sensitive about the timing of such a bill in the same month when 10 people were fatally gunned down in a Colorado grocery store and eight killed in a series of spa shootings in metro Atlanta, six of them women of Asian descent.
Lawmakers also axed a “right to visit” bill that would have required hospitals and nursing homes to allow visitors during public health emergencies, a measure that would have cracked down on protests, sports betting bills and an additional driver’s education course that would instruct people on how to interact with police.
Kemp has 40 days from adjournment to sign or veto all the bills sent to him by the legislature, or they become law without his action. In 2019, he vetoed 14 bills and several line items in the budget; in 2020, he vetoed four bills.
This story comes to The Current through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.