ATLANTA — Elections, pandemic recovery and the echoes of last summer’s protests against police in Georgia dominated a 2021 legislative session marked by bitter divisions between Georgia’s political parties.
The session, which wrapped up Wednesday and will return next January, was the General Assembly’s first since the 2020 election cycle upended statewide politics as Democrats notched historic wins and Republicans moved to rewrite dozens of voting laws.
Both sides put off disagreements to largely repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that had been on the books since the Civil War and helped fuel protests over police brutality and racial injustice that swept the country for months starting last May.
While largely peaceful, those protests boiled over at times in Atlanta with damage done to police cars, businesses and state public-safety offices, ultimately prompting Republican lawmakers to pass a law that places tight limits on how much Georgia cities and counties can cut their local police budgets.
Budgeting was also top of mind for lawmakers this year after they slashed more than $2 billion last year from Georgia schools, troopers, prisons, mental-health and other social services due to the economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Piles of proposals hit a wall as lawmakers closed shop Wednesday, leaving many high-profile measures stalled. The casualty list included legislation to legalize online sports betting in Georgia and allow in-person visits between family members and loved ones at hospitals and nursing homes during emergency times like the pandemic.
Those bills that failed to reach Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk this year will have another chance to do so in 2022 for the second half of the two-year term.
Jim Crow or better elections?
Battle lines formed after Democrats claimed victory in the 2020 presidential election and the U.S. Senate runoffs, handing the party key statewide wins for the first time in decades and cementing the idea that years of hard campaigning and demographic changes have shifted voting patterns in their favor.
Republican leaders quickly counter-attacked by holding General Assembly hearings to air former President Donald Trump’s unfounded voter-fraud claims, which laid the groundwork for proposing broad changes to Georgia’s election system in the session.
Ultimately, lawmakers passed a measure along party lines March 25 that adds identification requirements for mail-in voting, confines absentee-ballot drop boxes inside local election offices and polling places and bans non-poll workers from handing out food and drinks to people in line to vote within 150 feet of polling places during elections.
Those changes, along with new rules allowing state election officials to take over poor-performing county election boards, sparked outrage from Democrats and voting-rights advocates who declared voter access for Black and low-income Georgians will be set back worse than at any time since the Jim Crow era.
“After witnessing the GOP gutting of voting rights and inaction on issues like expanding access to health care, Georgia voters are engaged, empowered and know exactly who’s fighting against them,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the state Democratic Party. “Georgia Republicans are in for a rude awakening in 2022.”
Republican leaders – from Gov. Brian Kemp to party leaders in both General Assembly chambers to the state’s election chief, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – have blasted Democrats’ push to frame the election changes as racist acts of voter suppression.
They argue the law changes aim to bolster confidence in Georgia elections and expand voter access, noting the now-enacted bill scraps the state’s controversial signature-verification process for absentee ballots in favor of a voter ID requirement and gives counties the ability to open polls for more hours on weekends during the early-voting period.
“This is not ‘Jim Crow,’” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton. “Nobody is getting lynched for going to vote. Matter of fact, we don’t want 60% to vote – we want 100%. … Stop with the rhetoric.”
Ups and downs for criminal justice
Beyond election issues, Republican and Democratic leaders also sparred over legislation focused on guns, policing and criminal justice – many of which fell by the wayside after rounds of intense debate.
Efforts to loosen rules on interstate gun-carry permits, prosecute violent protesters and create a driver education program on how to interact with police during traffic stops all fell short of final passage amid stern opposition from Democratic leaders.
But Republican lawmakers did push through a measure that blocks most city and county governments from slashing their police budgets by more than 5% over a 5-year span, which opponents called an attempt by state authorities to strip control from local officials over how to police their communities.
Supporters argued the budget limits would help stave off any future moves by local officials to cripple their police forces, pointing out Atlanta and Athens officials nearly joined several cities outside Georgia in shrinking their police budgets after the summer’s heated protests.
Those protests prompted Democratic lawmakers to file dozens of bills on criminal-justice issues this session including more training for officers in de-escalation techniques, bans on using no-knock warrants and choke holds during arrests, a citizen-led review board for officer-involved shootings and legislation outlawing private prisons.
The only proposal to gain bipartisan support and clear the legislature was an overhaul of the citizen’s arrest law, which was scaled back so that only business owners can briefly detain people who commit crimes on their premises, as well as off-duty or out-of-jurisdiction police officers.
The repeal measure came after 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead in February 2020 while jogging near Brunswick in an encounter with two white men who suspected him of vandalizing a nearby house under construction. The pair claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest.
COVID-19 and the pocketbook
Meanwhile, throughout the bouts of fighting and the stretches of collaboration, the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over the 2021 session as lawmakers faced twice-weekly infection tests and sought to patch up the state’s $27 billion budget.
Taking cues from the governor, budget drafters in the state Senate and House of Representatives avoided the spending cuts imposed last year that sliced $2.2 billion from state agencies, particularly public schools that receive a huge chunk of annual tax revenues.
Lawmakers hailed Georgia’s economic rebound since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago as fuel to restore budget funding for schools with a mix of state dollars and federal emergency aid – though Democratic lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully to raise new revenues by ditching some lucrative tax breaks and raising the levy on cigarette sales. Instead, lawmakers approved even more tax exemptions.
Democrats’ calls to fully expand Medicaid benefits for low-income Georgians were also blocked by Republicans long opposed to broadening the costly program’s scope, despite a steep jump in eligible recipients amid the pandemic. Lawmakers did pass a bill to automatically enroll some 60,000 Georgia children in Medicaid who already receive food stamps.
Lawmakers also scuttled another attempt to legalize some forms of gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery by shooting down a bill to permit regulated sports betting in the state, pitched as way to raise more funding for the HOPE Scholarship program and need-based scholarships.
Also on the chopping block was a measure that would have given Georgia hospital patients and elderly-care residents isolated by the pandemic a limited window to meet in person with a legal representative or caregiver, who could be a family member. It was gutted before finally stalling on Wednesday.
The General Assembly next turns its attention to redrawing the boundaries of Georgia’s legislative and congressional districts, marking a Republican-led process that is certain to drum up the same fiery backlash seen from Democrats during the fight over election changes.
Hearings on redistricting are set to take place at the state Capitol in Atlanta sometime this fall or winter.