“Divisive concepts” and delivery robots: A roundup of the bills that passed (and didn’t) on the Georgia legislature’s last day

Monday's Sine Die closes out another legislative session under the Gold Dome. Here are the highlights:

Sine Die 2022 What Georgia Bills Passed and Didn't
Sine Die! General Assembly members throw their papers into the air, as is tradition, on the final day of the year’s legislative session.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

For 40 days and at least a few nights, the Georgia state legislature waded deep into the sausage-making of its 2022 session. On Monday, they wrapped things up with Sine Die, the storied last day that closes out the session, forcing legislators to hurry along their bills for a final vote or let them lapse until next year. Over a frenzied day of action that continued past midnight, lawmakers voted on dozens of bills, sometimes scrambling to grasp precise details embedded in last-minute legislation.

General Assembly lawmakers had already passed a number of high-profile bills earlier in the session, some unanimously, and some along bitter partisan lines. Last week, both parties celebrated the unanimous passage of the Mental Health Parity Act, which mandates that insurers treat mental health as they would physical health issues. But in the same week, Republicans also relied on their control of both chambers to pass the controversial “constitutional carry” bill on a party-line vote, allowing Georgians to carry a legally-purchased handgun concealed without a permit.

Sine Die 2022 What Georgia Bills Passed and Didn't
Advocates thank Georgia House Speaker David Ralston for championing the Mental Health Parity Act, which mandates that insurers treat mental health as they would physical health issues.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

Monday, lawmakers tackled what was left of the legislative mountain, scurrying routine bills across the finish line, and addressing lightning-rod legislation that had stalled amidst intense opposition. Here’s how some of the highest-profile legislation fared.

What Passed

2023 State Budget
As expected, lawmakers passed next year’s $30.2 billion state budget, the single piece of legislation mandated by the state constitution for lawmakers to pass. After passing midday in the Senate, it cleared the House by wide margins around 11 p.m., eliciting cheers throughout the paper-strewn chamber.

Buoyed by a healthy $4 billion budget surplus thanks to tax revenues and pandemic relief funds, Georgia lawmakers could pour money into state agencies and employees hammered during the Covid-19 pandemic. They approved raises for public school teachers, prison staff, public defenders and district attorneys; put more money into the state’s mental health agencies; and earmarked enough for public colleges and universities that some cost-saving fees instituted during the Great Recession will likely be rolled back. Altogether, the new budget, which goes into effect July 1, includes $1 billion more funding for education than last year’s.

“Citizens will be very happy,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia) told Georgia Public Broadcasting.

“Divisive Concepts” + Trans Girls in Sports
In an eleventh-hour move, Republicans tacked a piece of legislation targeting transgender girl athletes onto an already-contentious bill banning “divisive concepts” from being taught in schools.

The bill, which passed on party lines over anguished opposition from Democrats, originally concerned only the teaching of certain fraught racial subjects, which conservatives often refer to as “critical race theory.” It lists nine concepts that teachers cannot discuss with students, including that the United States is a fundamentally racist country, or that individuals bear responsibility for historical actions committed by other members of their race. The list is nearly identical to one compiled in a 2020 executive order by then-President Trump regarding federal workplace training. It also creates a review process if parents believe the concepts in question are being taught in their children’s schools.

Republicans attempted to pass a separate bill banning trans girl athletes from playing on girls’ teams at Georgia public schools, but it failed to pass the Senate earlier in the evening. (Even veteran AJC reporters presumed it dead.) But Governor Brian Kemp—who’s hoping to prove his conservative chops ahead of this year’s Republican primary—visited both chambers late in the evening and urged lawmakers to protect “fairness in girls’ sports.” In response, Republican lawmakers folded a weaker version of that bill’s language into the “divisive concepts” legislation.

Rather than an outright ban on trans athletes, the new legislation allows the Georgia High School Association to determine whether or not to prohibit trans girl athletes from competing on a sport-by-sport basis, and creates a commission to study the option of a blanket ban.

Caught off guard by the last-minute amendment, Democrats issued searing condemnations, but with minorities in both chambers, there was little else to do. “I am ashamed of this House,” Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) said, her voice audibly shaking, after the bill passed.

GBI Election Authority
Back in January, Governor Kemp said he didn’t want any more election law changes, but Republicans—facing pressure from base voters wrongly convinced that the 2020 election was fraudulent—drafted new legislation in the weeks leading up to Sine Die designed to address alleged voter fraud.

After county elections officials from across the state testified in hearings that most of the bill’s provisions—from unsealing paper ballots to limitations on outside funding—were little more than “security theater,” the bill was stripped of nearly every provision. But on Monday, state House lawmakers resurrected it with some elements reinstated, passing it on a party line vote.

The final bill passed by the Senate, which again pared down the House version, authorizes the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate claims of elections fraud or tampering. It will share authority with the elections bureau in the Secretary of State’s office, which currently handles these investigations. The bill also allocated $580,000 of the state budget to the GBI to investigate elections claims.

House Speaker Ralston assured, “it’s not sour grapes over 2020 . . . it’s a good government measure.” Assembly Democrats disagreed. “Stop passing legislation predicated on the Big Lie,” Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta) told her colleagues.

Maternal Medicaid
Despite the partisan rancor, there were some moments of unity under the Gold Dome on Monday. A bill extending postpartum Medicaid coverage from 6 months to 12 months for low-income mothers passed the House by wide margins after clearing the Senate unanimously in February. The measure includes $28 million in funding as part of the state’s budget.

Georgia has one of the country’s worst records in maternal mortality, and Black women in the state die in childbirth at a rate 3.3 times higher than white women. Research suggests that better access to healthcare is crucial to improving the survival and health of mothers and infants.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle cheered the bill’s passage, but Rep. Cannon noted it was “just the tip of the iceberg.” She called for other measures to protect maternal health, including funding for doulas (who support mothers throughout pregnancy, birth, and postpartum), and support with breastfeeding.

What Didn’t

Medical Cannabis Oil Manufacturers
Cannabis oil as a medical treatment was legalized in Georgia back in 2015, but the ongoing hurdle to authorize cannabis oil manufacturing in the state again proved insurmountable, as a bill that cleared the path to award nine business licenses stalled by a single vote in the Senate.

The quagmire stems from issues of transparency and fairness around the licensing process. A 2019 commission reviewed dozens of applicants and awarded six Georgia businesses license to produce the cannabis oil, but losing bidders accused the commission of a lack of transparency, and protests and lawsuits quickly followed. Meanwhile, 20,000 Georgians are approved to take medical cannabis oil—which is authorized to treat conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and terminal cancer—but have no way to legally buy the oil in the state.

This new bill was supposed to clean up the process and award three new licenses, but it was ultimately tanked due to ongoing concerns about transparency and fairness in how the state awards licenses. The House cleared the bill with a close vote of 95 to 73—Speaker Ralston kept the vote open noticeably longer than usual, leaving time for some waffling lawmakers to flip their positions—but the Senate voted 28-27 to table it, sending the bill to next year’s legislative pile.

Those who opposed the bill said it would have favored winning companies while complaints from losing applicants are still being heard. “We just want to get it right,” Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain) told the AJC’s Mark Niesse. “Don’t keep picking and choosing.”

Abortion Pill
In a victory for abortion rights advocates, the push to limit access to abortion-inducing medications was stymied, at least for this year.

This bill, which passed the Senate last month on a party-line vote, would have required pregnant women to attend an in-person visit, including an ultrasound, before a doctor could prescribe medications that cause abortion, like mifepristone or Misoprostol. It also banned the drugs on college campuses, as well as sale of the drugs by mail.

To make abortion more accessible during the pandemic, the FDA, with support from the Biden administration, loosened restrictions on the pills, making them permanently available by mail. That’s caused a backlash amongst conservatives, and Republican lawmakers have made banning the pills a new legislative agenda item.

The bill made it out of a House committee meeting, and was added to the calendar for a vote, but Speaker Ralston never called it up for a vote, blaming the dwindling clock and adding he hadn’t seen a great deal of interest in the bill from lawmakers or the public. Ralston also said he wants to hold off on new abortion restrictions until the Supreme Court weighs in this summer, when the fate of Georgia’s abortion law, currently tangled up in the courts, will likely be decided.

Sports Betting
Betting on sports is illegal in Georgia. And after supportive lawmakers tried for the third year in a row to change the law . . . it’s still illegal.

“I’m incredibly disappointed it didn’t happen again,” Braves CEO Derek Schiller told WABE. All of Georgia’s major pro teams supported the measure to legalize sports betting, chief among them the Atlanta Braves, who were hoping to round out a World Series victory with legislation that expands legal gambling.

The teams don’t make money off the bets, but they see legal sports gambling as a way to engage a wider fan base, and to potentially earn revenue from gambling companies through advertising and sponsorship. Schiller noted that illegal gambling is happening in Georgia either way (around $1.5 billion of it, according to recent estimates), but under the status quo the state can’t regulate it or earn tax revenue.

Sports betting had been absent for most of the 2022 legislative session, but last week, a House panel approved an older Senate resolution that would have put legal gambling to a voter referendum next year. They also approved a bill creating a Georgia Sports Betting Commission should the referendum pass, and establishing a process for gambling companies to get licensed and pay taxes to the state. The revenue would have gone to college scholarship and Pre-K education.

What happened? The bills couldn’t get a winning vote from the House Rules Committee, so they never made it the House floor. And because Georgia’s constitution bars nearly all gambling, legalizing sports betting already faced an extra-steep climb: approval of the referendum would have required a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

Plus, Republicans split on this issue, with some conservative evangelical lawmakers morally opposed to legalized gambling. “Georgia just needs to stay Georgia and not turn Atlanta into Las Vegas,” Mike Griffin, a representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, which opposed the measure, told the Current.

Proponents of legalized sports gambling may face better odds next year . . . but don’t bet on it.

Other Notable Bills and Moments

Recognizing Georgia’s Native American Tribes
Before Europeans colonized Georgia—and introduced labyrinthine customs like Sine Die— this ground was home to several Native American tribes: notably, the Muscogee Creek Tribe, the Cherokee of Georgia, and the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee.

This bill, which passed both chambers unanimously and with applause, recognizes the significant role Georgia’s native peoples have played in the state’s long history, and plants on the capitol grounds a Georgia red cedar “peace tree.”

Recess for Kids
This bill originally had its start in 2017 when a Georgia fourth grader testified about the need for recess in school. It took a few years, but the “recess bill” has finally passed, mandating daily supervised unstructured activity, preferably outdoors, for children in Georgia schools from kindergarten through fifth grade.

A similar recess bill made national headlines in 2019 when it passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by Governor Kemp, who said it would impose “unreasonable burdens” on schools. The new bill doesn’t prohibit schools from withholding recess as punishment, and also doesn’t include a specific time length (the old bill had a 30-minute time requirement), so it appears likely Governor Kemp will lend his signature to this one.

That fourth grader, Lily Nordby-Wills, is now in high school, so she won’t benefit from the bill she helped kickstart with her Girl Scout troop.  But she’s still happy about the win. “It’s exciting,” she told the AJC. “It takes a rare kid to be unhappy about recess.”

Robot Delivery Service
If you haven’t yet spotted a small, bright-blue Prime robot trundling down a sidewalk near you, you’re in luck: more are coming. Delivery services like Amazon and FedEx are partnering with robot technology companies to deliver packages directly to people’s homes. Machine learning has accelerated the use of such new technology, while more Americans are opting for online shopping, meaning more packages in the mail.

To keep up with the technology, lawmakers across the country are scrambling to set regulations ensuring that the —officially termed “personal delivery devices”—don’t endanger people’s safety or privacy. Georgia’s bill, which passed both houses with wide margins, makes us the 21st state to set standards for PDDs.

The new law sets speed limits of 20 mph on roads and 4 mph on sidewalks; mandates the use of brakes, reflectors, and lights; and stipulates that all robots are monitored by a human who can control them from afar. The bill also mandates $250,000 worth of liability insurance per robot and bars them from any road with a speed limit over 35 mph. Oh, and much like other forms of transportation, the new law makes it illegal to operate a personal delivery device while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Alexa, put down the martini.

A Final Adieu to a Gold Dome Legend
Sine Die marks the last day for bills to clear the legislature, but for lawmakers not seeking reelection, it’s also their last day in office. Throughout the day, several outgoing members took a moment in the well to say goodbye, but it was the farewell address of Representative Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) that truly brought down the House.

Smyre, nicknamed “Dean of the House” by Speaker Ralston, is the longest-serving lawmaker in the history of the Georgia General Assembly. He’s retiring after 48 years, a tenure that spanned nine U.S. presidents and witnessed a sea-change in Georgia politics.

In his address to the House, Rep. Smyre issued thanks to the many staff members, fellow representatives, and personnel with whom he shared his storied career. “How can you measure a 48-year career in the Georgia House?” He asked his colleagues. “You measure your career by how you honor this institution.”

After a thunderous standing ovation, staffers unveiled a portrait of the retiring representative, who’ll next serve as ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Speaker Ralston, who praised Rep. Smyre for being “the calming influence on the waters when the storms were . . . raging around us,” has directed that the portrait will hang permanently on the Capitol walls.

The bonhomie of his farewell was followed by twelve bruising hours of politicking, but Rep. Smyre was there for it all, voting alongside his colleagues, and throwing his papers in the air in the customary fashion that announces the celebratory end to Sine Die.

On his way out, he shared a few last thoughts with reporters: “I hope I’ve made a difference,” he said. Indeed, it’s the same hope that keeps every lawmaker here on the very last day, fulfilling the promise of democracy, well into the night.

Sine Die 2022 What Georgia Bills Passed and Didn't

Photograph by Rachel Garbus