Election-year politics will play a major role in the 2022 General Assembly session — which opened Monday, Jan. 10 — with Republicans running in primaries this spring looking to score points with the GOP base.
The rush to the right to court conservative Republican primary voters will include bills easing restrictions on guns, cutting taxes and doubling down on changes to Georgia’s election laws Democrats have labeled as voter suppression.
“Gov. (Brian) Kemp will try to position himself to block (Republican primary opponent) David Perdue, and the (GOP) lieutenant governor candidates are both in the Senate,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “If one comes forward with a proposal, the other might say, ‘I’ll see you and raise you.’”
But the leaders who run the two legislative chambers — Georgia House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the state Senate — are vowing not to let politics get in the way of addressing mental health and crime.
“Those two topics will be my focus for the session,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “I’m not going to be distracted by what other people do in their campaigns.”
Ralston cited alarming statistics on crime and youth suicides in his call for action on crime and mental health.
Atlanta’s homicide rate was the highest in two decades in 2020, then was exceeded by the 158 murders that occurred last year.
There were 67 youth suicides in Georgia last year through November, more than the 55 that took place in all of 2020.
Committees in both legislative chambers held hearings on crime last summer and fall, and both are expected to put forth legislation during the upcoming session.
On the Senate side, Duncan is pushing a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit for individuals and corporations who contribute to their local police department or sheriff’s office through a law enforcement foundation.
Donations would go toward raising officer salaries, hiring additional law enforcement personnel, expanding police training programs, equipment purchases and to help law enforcement agencies interested in “co-responder” program dedicated to mental health emergencies.
Last summer, Ralston called for a $50 million budget appropriation to beef up law enforcement and mental health services.
He said the House also will take up a comprehensive mental health bill that includes a provision aimed at addressing a shortage of mental health workers.
“To do what we need to do in mental health, we’re going to have to incentivize people to train in that,” Ralston said.
While tackling crime and mental health, lawmakers also will consider a proposal by Kemp to expand gun rights by allowing many Georgians to carry concealed firearms without obtaining a permit.
“Law-abiding Georgians exercising their constitutional rights only strengthens public safety,” Kemp wrote in a Twitter post.
Additional tax relief also will be on the General Assembly’s 2022 agenda. Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who is running for lieutenant governor, pre-filed a bill last month that would eliminate Georgia’s income tax.
But other Republican leaders aren’t likely to support getting rid of the tax completely, which would force deep spending cuts to make up for the lost revenue. They will likely get behind a more moderate approach to reduce the income tax rate from 5.75% — the rate lawmakers adopted in 2018 — to 5.5% or perhaps lower.
“It’s an extremely tough lift to go from something to zero,” said Kyle Wingfield, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “State revenues have grown against everyone’s expectations. … I don’t know of anyone who thinks these revenues are going to keep marching up like they have been.”
Round two of Republican-backed changes to Georgia’s election laws also stacks up as a battle between far-reaching proposals aimed at appealing to GOP base voters and more moderate measures.
The General Assembly passed sweeping legislation last year that, among other things, restricts the locations of absentee ballot drop boxes. Now, Miller wants to ban them entirely, arguing they didn’t exist in state law until the onset of COVID-19 and are vulnerable to voter fraud.
Ralston is behind more moderate steps, including a bill he plans to introduce to give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation original jurisdiction to handle complaints of election law violations without having to be invited by a local government.
He cited allegations of wrongdoing during the November 2020 election from former President Donald Trump and his followers that still dog Georgia today as evidence of the need for the GBI.
“Here we are 14 months after an election and you’ve still got people who don’t accept the result,” Ralston said. “Part of the reason for that is we didn’t have an independent non-political investigation go in early.”
While additional tax relief and election law changes are examples of following up on previous acts by the General Assembly, the legislature has yet to legalize gambling in Georgia.
A years-long effort to pass legalized gambling and tie a portion of the proceeds to education came closer than ever to success last year when the state Senate passed a constitutional amendment asking voters to legalize sports betting. However, the measure failed to reach the House floor for a vote.
This year, supporters’ strategy likely will be to lump sports betting, parimutuel betting on horse racing and casino gambling into a single constitutional change. That way, voters could decide all three at once on the November ballot.
Still, sports betting has the most momentum of the three, said Rep. Ron Stephens, chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, who introduced the standalone sports betting legislation last year.
“It’s something we’re doing today,” he said. “People are betting. It’s just that … no (tax) revenue is being collected.”
As a result, Stephens said he plans to back “enabling” legislation this year that would spell out how sports betting would operate in Georgia if voters approve the constitutional amendment. Enabling bills tied to horse racing and/or casinos then could follow in 2023.