Action item: Call (404-656-1776) or write Governor Kemp to let him know we need a technical college next to the Doraville MARTA station in North Dekalb. I have once again secured $4 million in the Senate budget to purchase the land for an expansion of Georgia Piedmont Technical College, but the Governor has the power to line-item veto budget items for 40 days following the legislative session. Your voice matters!
Whenever I see my friend Rep. Doug Stoner in the hallways of the Capitol, I flash him a little sneer and say, “It’s your fault.” Doug knows he talked me into running for the State Senate — telling me that in comparison to the House, the Senate is more collegial and bi-partisan. While I believe that describes the Georgia Senate’s terrain-of-the-past, my time in the Senate has been a bit more difficult to navigate. And this year, the GOP leadership steered things even more off-course.
Throwing Out the Rule Book
Parliamentary Procedure: Similar to how a captain listens to his crew to promote cooperation, parliamentary procedure (aka “Robert’s Rules of Order,” or in the case of legislative bodies, “Mason’s Manual”) allows for decision making that reflects the majority, while still allowing space for the voice of the minority. The official Senate Rules are based on this model, and quite frankly in today’s partisan environment, following these Rules is what keeps us from clobbering each other! So it worries that this year, the Rules were not taken seriously.
Germaneness: For example, Senate Rule 7-1.2 on “Germaneness” clearly states that you can’t attach an amendment to a bill of a different subject matter. Senators can challenge an amendment on the grounds of germaneness, and the Rules state that the President must rule on whether the amendment is germane or not.
HB 374 was originally a bill outlining a new procedure for municipalities de-annexing land. By Sine Die, it was amended to include the language from SB 145, a bill preempting cities from banning gas leaf blowers. When Democrats challenged the leaf blower amendment on the grounds of germaneness, Lt. Governor Jones dispensed with the usual formalities and refused to make the call. Instead, he simply said every Senator is free to vote however they wish. His aloofness seemed Trumpesque.
A Trail of Crumbs Leading to Nowhere
No Supermajority: Though the GOP has the majority in the Georgia legislature, there are times when they need the help of Democrats. One example is with constitutional amendments, which require a 2/3rd vote (⅔ requires 37 votes, and there are only 33 Senate Republicans). This allows Democrats an opportunity to ask for something in return for their support. But this session I noticed that the offers made by the GOP leadership were things Democrats didn’t even want, and when we did ask for what we wanted, we didn’t get it.
Sports Betting Deals: For example, the Lt. Governor didn’t have the votes from his own caucus to pass sports betting, which he very much wanted. Early in the session many Democrats did support it. However, as the transgender treatment ban (SB 140) began moving through the process, the Democratic Caucus warned the Lt. Governor that we would withhold our votes for sports betting if he allowed SB 140 to come to the floor for a vote. The Lt. Governor told us he would not make deals with SB 140.
The Republican agenda of sports betting and bills targeting trans teenagers are not kitchen table issues. Georgians would be much better off with a Democratic agenda that focuses on policies that actually help Georgians, such as quality public education, healthcare for all, and sustainable energy policies.
Voting My Values Keeps Me on Solid Ground
Speaking of sports betting, my “no” vote each time it came up turned out to be my most valuable asset this session. At my core, I believe taxes should fund basic government services rather than revenue produced by harmful industries such as gambling.
Those “no” votes protected me from Republican pressure tactics to change my vote. I’ve always voted my values and so far they’ve never steered me in the wrong direction.
A Surprise Detour: Scripted Debate
This year, the floor debate that followed the budget presentation turned into a surprise performance focused on a controversial measure to cut $66 million from the University System of Georgia’s (USG) budget.
University Funding: Since I serve on the Senate Higher Ed Committee, I have learned the ins-and-outs of university funding. So it surprised me when my colleagues who don’t have this background began asking very detailed questions.
But soon after another Senator told me, “This “debate” is scripted,” and showed me a long document with copies of handwritten questions for Senators to ask the Appropriations Chair. Each question was designed to drive home the point that schools were actually flush with money. The questions also obfuscated the real purpose of the cuts — to punish Wellstar Health Systems while they negotiated taking over Augusta University’s hospitals. Wellstar opposed the Lt. Governor’s bill to eliminate hospital regulations in rural Georgia, a measure that stood to benefit the Lt. Governor’s family. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Chair told the AJC, “The House does not play politics with the budget.”
I sometimes see scripted debate in committee hearings, but I have never seen it used to such an extent on the floor. Despite the scripted show, a $66 million cut is a significant blow to our university system. State higher education funding remains well under what it was 15 years ago. Many Georgia colleges and universities have had declining enrollment in recent years, and since the state higher ed funding formula is based on credit hours taught, lower enrollment also means less tuition AND less state funding. This is not good for Georgia.
Last Minute Law Writing Takes Us in the Wrong Direction
Around 10 pm, another surprise arrived on our desks. It was HB 196, a bill that combined a medical cannabis bill and a hemp bill into one. The House had completely rewritten the medical cannabis portion from a bill the Senate passed just days before. We were given only minutes to read the new 54-page bill before it was called up for a vote.
Medical Cannabis: This session, lawmakers have been working to fix the state’s deeply flawed process for issuing production and distribution licenses for medical cannabis products. The Georgia Medical Cannabis Commission, originally established for this purpose, has been slow and unwilling to be transparent, causing many to question its decision-making. It’s now facing litigation from a number of producers who applied for licenses. The Senate’s bill would make the Cannabis Commission subject to open records. The new House bill abolished the Commission and gave all of the licensing responsibility to the state Agricultural Commissioner, handing him both enormous power and pressure.
The Republicans waged a lengthy debate amongst themselves over this last minute re-write, with many objecting to such drastic changes that were never vetted through the Senate Committee process. It was interesting to watch our colleagues across the aisle object to those same tactics. Ultimately the Senate disagreed with the House version and time ran out for any further action.
Bipartisan Collaborative Policy-Making Gets Lost in the Shuffle
Study Committees: By Sine Die, the Senate approves a list of Senate Study Committees that work over the interim to dive more deeply into complex issues. During the past few years, I have been very successful in using Study Committees to negotiate bi-partisan solutions such as lowering the cost of higher education, and improving services for those living with disabilities. Normally, the Lt. Governor chooses at least a dozen Study Committees for the final list, but this year we were stunned to see only about half that number on the final list.
Particularly disappointing was the omission of a Study Committee on ambulance response times, as well as gun safety. The new Lt. Governor does not seem to see the value in bringing together legislators, citizens, and subject matter experts in developing quality legislation and policy to benefit Georgia citizens.
On the Horizon
We’re now halfway through a two-year term, so all bills that didn’t pass this year remain alive for next year. This gives us a clear roadmap for the work ahead.
Bills that Passed This Year:
- Prosecutorial oversight bill (SB 92),
- The transgender treatment ban bill (SB 140)
- Ban on private elections funding (SB 222)
Bills that didn’t make the Sine Die deadline, but remain alive for next year:
- Private school vouchers (SB 233)
- Sports Betting (several)
- Cash bail expansion (SB 63)
- Tenant protections bill (HB 404)
- Anti-Semitism bill (HB 144)
- Mental health bill (HB 520)
- The Car Booting Ban (SB 247)
Thank You for the Privilege to Serve
I’m looking forward to catching up on some quality sleep after working very long days. I also look forward to improving my diet. Toward the end of the session, I could stretch one boxed lunch into three meals — ½ sandwich for lunch, ½ sandwich for dinner, and a cookie for breakfast, saving the potato chips for my kids.
I know it’s hard to believe, but I love this work and am always grateful for the privilege to serve my district and the state of Georgia.
Rep. Karen Lupton and I will host a Town hall Meeting in Brookhaven within the next couple of weeks. Please look for an announcement of the date in your in-box!