Savannah-area state lawmakers find mixed success under the Gold Dome
State Representatives Jesse Petrea and Edna Jackson have reason to gloat about their accomplishments during the just completed session of the Georgia General Assembly.
For Senators Billy Hickman and Ben Watson, the satisfaction of being in the Republican majority was tempered by controversy.
Then there are those local lawmakers — all Democrats — who saw little or no progress in seeing their legislative ambitions enshrined into law in the Republican-dominated legislature. Sen. Derek Mallow and Reps. Carl Gilliard and Anne Allen Westbrook are largely left to boast of having fought the good fight.
All told, when measured against their declared priorities, Savannah-area lawmakers enjoyed mixed success during the just completed session of the Georgia General Assembly.
Prosecutors and taxes
Law-and-order champion Petrea, a longtime critic of Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones, was intent on ratcheting up oversight on what Republicans see as “woke prosecutors” who aren’t doing enough to fight crime. He and his Republican allies succeeded.
Now awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature after it passed the GOP-dominated legislature is a bill that would establish a new state commission to discipline and remove delinquent prosecutors.
Former Savannah mayor and current Democratic Rep. Edna Jackson sought an increase in Savannah’s hotel-motel tax. She got it.
Backed by Petrea, Westbrook, Gilliard and Rep. Ron Stephens and Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon), the bill authorizes an increase of up to 8% on hotel and motel rooms, lodges, and other accommodations.
(An identical tax hike was approved for Hinesville, thanks to bill co-sponsors Reps. Al Williams (D-Midway) and Buddy DeLoach (R-Townsend). The same measure for Port Wentworth, promoted by Mallow, went nowhere.)
Hitchens delivered for one of top legislative priorities: additional funding for the Savannah Convention Center expansion. The budget approved by Gov. Kemp included $10 million for the $276 million project, which is expected to be completed in January.
Stephens got his main wish, too. He listed property tax relief as a top priority and earlier this month, Kemp earlier this month signed into law a refund of $950 million in property taxes back to homestead owners.
Education and mental health
Hickman’s and Watson’s legislative priorities didn’t fare so well.
Hickman’s top priority was an overhaul of Georgia’s K-12 education funding mechanism, known as Quality Basic Education, or QBE. Gov. Kemp’s amended $32.6 billion budget, which he signed into law on March 13, fully funds the QBE formula for the state’s 1.6 million public school students.
But lawmakers appear to have sidestepped a revamping of the formula itself, which dates to 1984. Savannah-Chatham County school officials, among others, have urged a change in the formula itself to allow for inflation and such expenses as transportation and technology.
Possible changes to the QBE formula was eclipsed in the waning days of the session by a “school choice” bill that would have given $6,500 to the family of each public school student who switched to a private school or chose home schooling instead.
The measure passed the Senate, with Watson, Sen. Mike Hodges (R-Brunswick), and Hickman in favor of the bill and Mallow opposed. Despite Kemp’s support, however, the bill lost in the House by a vote of 89-84, with 12 Republicans voting against it — including Thomasville’s Darlene Taylor and Statesboro’s Lehman Franklin.
Sen. Watson aimed to follow up on last year’s landmark mental health legislation with further reforms of the state’s mental health system.
But in the waning days of the session, a bill calling aimed at recruiting more mental health workers and helping people who bounce between hospitals, jails and homelessness died in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which Watson chairs.
The measure fell victim to unresolved questions about its costs and to differences among Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and other Republican leaders over an unrelated hospital deregulation bill.
When asked if he would seek a vote in the Senate on mental health legislation after the deadline for bills to clear the chamber had passed, Watson sounded powerless: “That’s probably not my question to answer.”
Medicaid expansion and minimum wage
Of course, passing a bill out of the state legislature, especially for its sponsor, isn’t the only benchmark of legislative success.
Lawmakers introduce ill-fated measures in the Gold Dome to score points with their core supporters and to appease individual and corporate contributors to their campaigns and political action committees.
And supporting a bill and getting it out of committee and to a vote on the House or Senate floor gives a lawmaker — even if they lose — an opportunity to criticize current policies and forces their political opponents to record a vote regarding those policies.
That “fight-the-good-fight” legislative strategy may best describe local Democrats in the General Assembly and the fate of most of their legislative priorities in the latest session.
Mallow’s hopes for Medicaid expansion were dashed. Despite federal financial incentives offered under the Affordable Care Act and the American Rescue Plan, the state legislature failed to pass legislation that would fully expand Medicaid.
Noted the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute: “This decision did not reflect the will of state residents—a recent GBPI poll conducted by the University of Georgia found that 71 percent of Georgians support Medicaid expansion — and that majority holds among Republican voters.”
For Westbrook, in her first term in the state House, countering efforts to limit voting was a priority, along with health care access.
Instead, the legislature moved to ban absentee ballot boxes and county election offices from accepting private funds. The latter measure now awaits Gov. Kemp’s signature.
Supporters of SB 222 said it ensures that any outside foundation dollars that come to the state are spread evenly across the state so there’s equal access to all people. Critics said the measure is rooted in “Big Lie conspiracy theories” and will hamper the ability of elections offices to administer elections.
As for Rep. Gilliard’s hope for an increase in Georgia’s minimum wage, HB 241 called for a $15/hr. minimum wage, up from the state’s $5.15/hr., the second lowest in the U.S.
The bill never got out of committee.
Gambling and transgender kids
The fate of local lawmakers’ legislative priorities doesn’t tell the whole story of their work during the session.
Mallow, Hickman, and Watson may be most remembered for their eleventh-hour effort at a meeting of the Senate Economic Development & Tourism Committee to legalize online sports gambling, after it had already been voted down twice.
Without informing Rep. Leesa Hagan (R-Lyons), they co-opted her bill that would have made the Southeast Georgia Soap Box Derby in Lyons the state’s official soapbox derby, amending it with more than40 pages of sports gambling language.
Hagan would later get her measure passed, and the betting bill would again go down in defeat, as Stephens, a longtime proponent of legalizing gambling in the state, looked on. But as she fought back anger and tears, the surprise maneuver looked more like an ambush of a novice female legislator than savvy legislating.
Watson is also likely to be recognized for his backing of a bill that often appeared to be as much about political positioning and the country’s culture wars as health care, if not more.
A practicing physician, Watson co-sponsored legislation that bans most medical treatments that help transgender kids affirm their gender identity.
Then, as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, he played a pivotal role in writing and ushering the bill into law — that, despite opposition from hundreds of doctors across Georgia and the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as questions over why over this particular issue, GOP lawmakers were setting aside their fealty to parental rights.
Debate over the bill was charged.
“Every single representative who votes ‘yes’ on this bill will have the blood of the children of the state on their hands, who they are supposed to represent,” The Associated Press quoted Leonardo Hinnant, an 18-year-old transgender man who is a freshman at Georgia State University, as saying.
Watson argued that leaving puberty-blocking drugs as an option strikes the right balance.
“This is the needle that we have threaded,” he said.