Last month’s election results were a reminder that, for all its demographic changes, Georgia is still a conservative state.
It always has been. Whether the Capitol was controlled by Democrats or by Republicans, this is a state whose elected leadership has generally taken a cautious approach to whatever hot issue might be sweeping the country.
While cultural and political fads start in places like California and Massachusetts, Georgia and her sister states in the Deep South are usually among the last to take them up.
But even as this remains a politically conservative state, social changes are slowly taking place at the margins.
Take the issue of marijuana legalization. Even though 23 states allow some use of the substance, the topic was never discussed seriously at the legislature prior to this year. You’d see more bills to legalize the sale of raw milk than of marijuana.
Since January, however, we have seen the Georgia House pass a bill to allow limited medical use of marijuana derivatives, along with Gov. Nathan Deal signing an executive order for Georgia Regents University to participate in clinical trials with a pharmaceutical company.
It won’t be a huge surprise if a medical marijuana bill passes both the House and Senate this year and makes it into law. Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Norcross, has filed bills to pave the way for full legalization for all medical and recreational purposes. Those measures won’t pass next session, but they’ll start the discussion and it won’t be long before lawmakers seriously debate them.
Another issue where change is coming is gay marriage.
Ten years ago, after Massachusetts judges issued a ruling that allowed same-sex marriages, Georgia and several other states put gay marriage bans on the election ballot in response.
“I bring this here today to make sure judges in this state don’t do what happened the week before last in Massachusetts,” said state Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers, one of the sponsors of the anti-gay marriage amendment. “They go too far; it’s time we said, ‘Enough.’”
The state-level prohibitions all passed that year and it looked like it would be a long time before same-sex marriages were recognized anywhere outside New England.
But look at how quickly the barriers have crumbled in the 18 months since the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Same-sex marriages are now recognized in 35 states either by court order, the passage of legislation, or popular vote. Georgia is one of only 15 states where such marriages are still banned, and the list seems to get shorter by the week.
I have had a running debate with a friend in Alabama as to whether that state or Georgia will be the last to keep a gay marriage prohibition on the books. I don’t know which state will hold out the longest, but I think that debate will be resolved fairly soon.
Legalized gambling is another issue where you are likely to see Georgia bending to the times.
Voters already opened the door to that possibility more than 20 years ago when they approved the creation of the Georgia Lottery.
It has been clear for a long time that the state has serious shortcomings in such areas as transportation and education. More money is needed to fix our roads and improve our public schools, but lawmakers have been reluctant — if not outright opposed — to adopt any proposals for raising taxes.
Knowing how politically dangerous it is to increase taxes, you’ll see legislators look more favorably at the idea of raising the money by allowing some form of legalized gambling. These gambling proceeds would still be tax revenues, but they would be a tax that people pay voluntarily.
Within just a few years, possibly before the end of Deal’s second term as governor, the concept of legalized gambling could be as acceptable here as the package sale of alcoholic beverages on Sundays, another change in Georgia law that was resisted for decades.
William F. Buckley Jr. once wrote that, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop.’”
There will always be plenty of people who yell “Stop!” But no matter how loudly you yell, history has a way of running right through that stop sign.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.