When this year’s session of the General Assembly began in January, we pondered whether lawmakers would address issues of substance or, as they often do, pander to election-year politics with bills aimed at currying favor with certain groups of voters.
We got our answer, and it came as little surprise to see a few hot-button topics dominate the session’s debate. That continued to do so after the gavel dropped over the fate of a few key bills, two in particular.
One was the push for a “religious freedom” bill aimed to protect clergy and businesses from compromising their faith but seen by many as a backdoor attempt to condone discrimination. The other was the “campus carry” bill that would allow registered adults to carry firearms on college campuses.
Both bills were targeted to appeal to social conservatives who feel strongly their “God and guns” protections from the Bill of Rights are under attack from the culture and the law. Yet both also were opposed by many Republicans who feared them having a detrimental effect in the long haul. Thus, both were vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal, who unlike legislators isn’t up for re-election and not singularly focused on playing to voters.
Deal expressed concerns a reasonable conservative should apply to new laws: Is there a problem being solved by a law or is it creating a bigger one? These bills could have hurt businesses, fostered discrimination and made college campuses more dangerous. The risk of each was too great to justify approving them without addressing specific concerns, something the governor asked legislators to do but they refused.
This divide reflects a similar “principles vs. pragmatism” split among Republicans seen at the national level. On one side are “cultural warriors” more in tune with social issues who see the encroaching diversity of ideas and changing standards as a threat to their way of life. On the other are “country club” set, business-minded fiscal conservatives eager to embrace new customers and ideas as long as the commerce keeps flowing.
That debate played out over the religious freedom bill, where concern over potential boycotts by businesses, including the NFL’s threat to deny Atlanta a Super Bowl, may have tipped the balance. Indiana suffered such a fate when it passed a similar bill last year, and North Carolina is facing that backlash now over its ban on transgender bathroom choices.
The “establishment” GOP leaders at all levels are inclined to back away from any cultural or social issue that might have an economic downside. Yet many voters have responded to fears that the America they knew is changing too fast for their comfort. That emotional surge led to Donald Trump’s emergence as the likely GOP presidential nominee over a field of more traditional mainstream candidates.
This face-off in Georgia has just begun with Deal’s vetoes. Lawmakers promise to reintroduce both bills he rejected, and it’s uncertain whether they will address his concerns in order to earn his support. He has two more years in office, so how this plays out next year, and in the next gubernatorial race, will be interesting to watch.
The rest of the legislative session produced items focused on more tangible problems. Education received a much-needed focus, including a bill addressing how test scores are used to evaluate schools, students and teachers. Deal still hopes to reform the educational funding system, though he put off legislation pushing recommendations from his panel assigned with that task until next year when they can be more carefully considered. That effort now might face a more difficult path from fellow Republicans angered by his vetoes.
Other changes included expanding the state Supreme Court by two seats, and a bill to allow disabled Georgians to create tax-free savings and expense accounts. Yet the biggest missed opportunity wasn’t over weapons or religion but the failure to expand cannabis oil availability to those who need its medicinal cures.
And it’s worth noting the governor signed a bill allowing Tasers, or stun guns, on campuses, giving students a less fatal way to protect themselves. That might ease fears, though if evidence emerges that weapon leads to violent abuse, it might indicate the veto of the firearms bill was a good choice.
One disturbing trend that emerged from the session is over the concealment of public records. Bills signed by Deal will allow many state agencies to shield economic development deals, make it harder to reveal officials’ conflicts of interest, erase arrest records for first offenders after a certain time period and let college athletic departments keep public records secret for three months. Thankfully, he did veto a bill to exempt public officials from penalties when they fail to disclose financial records, which would have sent the wrong message.
Many politicians continue to preach against government secrecy and influence when they run for office, then change their tune once in power to protect data, and each other, from public scrutiny. It’s a troubling direction for a state that consistently ranks among the worst in encouraging open government. Georgians need more advocates for sunshine to emerge from state leadership.
Summing up, it clearly was a session that didn’t close the book on many issues, and instead set up conflicts to come. After six years or so of peace between the governor’s office and legislature, we may be in store for battles within the majority party over the next two years, both in Atlanta and Washington.
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