Another year, another legislative session in the books. In the wee hours of March 30, the Georgia General Assembly finished its lawmaking for the year, in a frantic sprint to pass what they could, table the rest, and squabble over everything in between.
This year’s session started out sluggish. The State House and Senate were both under new leadership, with Representative Jon Burns stepping into Speaker of the House following the death of David Ralston, a beloved North Georgia Republican who’d led the House for nearly 20 years. Across the hall, Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones presided over the Senate for the first time, ruffling a few feathers as he attempted to push through a rural hospital bill that critics said would have financially benefited his father-in-law (it failed).
Tensions simmered between the chambers in the final weeks, but lawmakers managed to pass a sizable stack of new laws, some with strong bipartisan support, others over howling Democratic opposition. Republicans, with a majority in both chambers, rule the roost under the Gold Dome. But state Democrats handily wield their limited influence, voting as a bloc and peeling off Republican votes wherever they can.
Because the legislature works in two-year sessions, any bill that didn’t make it can be reconsidered next year. But for now, here’s a look at what won and lost in 2023.
Squeaked through on the last day
2024 State Budget
The only bill lawmakers are constitutionally mandated to pass is next year’s budget, and they pulled it off—at the eleventh hour (literally. It was 11:56 p.m.) The $32.4 billion budget for 2024 includes $2,000 raises for teachers, bringing the average annual teacher salary to $61,000, the largest in the Southeast. State law enforcement officers will also receive big salary bumps.
The budget, which lawmakers said accounted for a projected economic slowdown, includes cuts to higher education and Georgia Public Broadcasting, though not as steep as some appropriations committee members had proposed. In a win for Georgia’s students, the HOPE scholarship, funded by lottery ticket sales, will go back to covering 100 percent of tuition for high school graduates with a B average or higher, rather than the two-tiered system that had been in place previously.
In a late-night address to lawmakers, Governor Brian Kemp warned that the budget “has significant holes,” so there could be some post-session negotiating before the budget takes effect on July 1.
Ban on nonprofit donations to local elections offices
Making it through on the last day of session was SB 222, an addition to the sweeping 2021 elections reform bill Republicans passed in response to a wave of “voter fraud” panic. That law prohibited local elections offices from accepting any money from private donors of nonprofits to assist in elections administration; the new law makes it a felony for elections official to do so, punishable by at least a year in prison and a minimum fine of $10,000.
Bans on outside financial support for elections administration stem from the 2020 election: to support struggling elections officials at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, some non-profits and private foundations, including Facebook/Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, sent out millions to local elections offices across the country. Critics of the ban said it was “rooted in Big Lie conspiracy theories” and criticized Republican lawmakers for leaving money on the table.
Other changes to election law weren’t so successful. SB 221, a controversial bill that would have banned absentee drop boxes entirely and made it easier to challenge the eligibility of large groups of voters, never got a Senate vote.
Passed Earlier in Session
Creation of District Attorneys Oversight Commission
This controversial bill, sponsored by a Cataula Republican, creates an eight-member state oversight committee with the power to investigate and remove district attorneys and solicitors general for certain violations or mental incapacity. It passed along largely party lines and now awaits signature by Governor Brian Kemp.
Democrats called SB 92 an attempt to curtail the power of Democratic district attorneys in the wake of several high-profile cases, including Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ investigation of former President Trump’s election interreference, and Athens-area DA Deborah Gonzalez’ refusal to prosecute marijuana and other low-level cases. Republicans countered that it was a simple measure to improve criminal justice oversight.
Ban on most gender-affirming healthcare for young transgender Georgians
In what was far and away the most emotional legislative process of the session, Republican lawmakers passed a bill banning most gender-affirming healthcare for transgender minors in Georgia. Doctors who provide hormone replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgeries for minors could lose their license or be help criminally liable. Governor Kemp signed the bill on March 23.
SB 140 made it out of the Senate on Crossover Day, the last day a bill can move to the other chamber. Hundreds of Georgians gathered under the Gold Dome to protest the bill, including many transgender youths and their families. Bill sponsors said the limits on gender-affirming care are meant to protect children by enforcing a pause on any permanent transition. But the law contravenes the leading medical science on transgender healthcare, which has found that age-appropriate interventions are safe and effective for treating gender dysphoria in adolescents.
The ACLU of Georgia announced it will sue the state over the new law, which goes into effect July 1.
Halfway there, but no cigar
The following bills were approved by one chamber, only to fail in the other–we’ll likely see them again next session.
Georgia’s conservatives have long coveted a school vouchers law, which would provide cash payments for parents who want to educate their children outside the public school system. Governor Kemp threw last-minute support behind SB 233, which would have given Georgia parents $6,500 per child to use at private school, homeschool, or other education programs. The bill’s opponents said it would suck money out of an already-underfunded public school system and allow wealthy families more choices while leaving poorer students stuck in struggling schools. They also said that rural students would be disproportionately affected, since there are fewer private options outside of big cities.
It looked likely to pass, but at the last minute, over a dozen Republican from mostly rural districts joined Democrats to defeat the measure in the House. The final vote, 85-89, elicited cheers from Democrats. “Let’s stop ciphering money from Georgia’s public school and let’s . . . put energy into fixing what needs to be fixed in our public schools,” said Rep. Doreen Carter (D-Lithonia).
Mental health parity act expansion
In his last session, the late Speaker David Ralston championed a sweeping mental health parity act, making mental healthcare more affordable and accessible across the state. This year’s bill, HB 520, expanded on that new law to improve behavioral health access. It includes loan repayment programs to grow the number of mental health providers in the state, improve data sharing among state agencies, and a study on available bed space in mental health crisis centers.
In early March, the bill passed the House nearly unanimously, only to hit roadblocks in the Senate, where several Republicans raised concern over the price tag. Squabbles between Lieutenant Governor Jones and House Speaker Burns over the rural hospital bill further complicated the mental health legislation, and Sine Die arrived without HB520 making it out of a Senate committee. A small piece of the bill, regarding streamlining patient data sharing between agencies, made it into a separate bill; supporters hope the rest of the legislation will fare better next year.
In a blow to gambling enthusiasts (and online betting companies likes FanDuel hungry for the market), Georgia lawmakers failed another year in a row to legalize sports betting. Supporters in both chambers tried several ways to push through legalization, from a constitutional amendment that would let voters choose to an outright legalization without a vote. Supporters say legalizing sports betting could raise money for schools—as lottery tickets do now—rather than let illegal gambling continue under-the-table. Opponents worried about the threat of gambling addictions.
When direct measures failed midway through the session, lawmakers in the House tried a coat-tails approach, tacking sports betting onto a fairly obscure bill that would have made the soapbox derby in Lyons, Georgia, the state’s official derby (that bill’s sponsor, Lyons Republican Rep. Leesa Hagan, wasn’t pleased). But it wasn’t meant to be: the bill never reached a full Senate vote. It could fare better next year . . . but, you know, don’t bet on it.
Spurred on by a raft of anti-Jewish flyers that landed on doorsteps in northern Atlanta, lawmakers moved this session to add a formal definition of antisemitism to state law. Freshman Representative Esther Panitch (D-Sandy Springs), the only Jewish state lawmaker, who also received the hateful flyers, was a co-sponsor. The bill would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of antisemitism as part of the Georgia Code section on hate crimes.
Though it sailed through the House, it caught a snare in the Senate when some legislators and constituents raised concerns that the language of the definition could curtail free speech around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The IHRA’s definition includes several examples of antisemitism that relate to criticism of Israel. In an AJC op-ed on March 1, several Jewish Atlantans wrote that the bill would “give supporters of Israel an ‘official’ definition of antisemitism . . . to use against criticisms of Israel.” It never made it to the Senate floor for a vote, but Rep. Panitch says she’ll try again next session.
Stalled in First Gear
These bills never made it out of the first chamber—but like everything else, they could be picked up again next session.
The second attempt to create a referendum on Buckhead City failed in the last weeks of session. The bill would have given Buckhead residents the opportunity to vote on seceding from the rest of the city of Atlanta, a complicated process critics said would have unleashed a deluge of bureaucratic and financial headaches. Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones delivered on a campaign promise to bring it to a Senate vote, but ten Republicans joined Democrats to block its passage.
Shortly before the vote, a lawyer in Governor Kemp’s office issued a memo suggesting the de-annexation of Buckhead might violate the constitution; wary lawmakers expressed concern with how public schools and bond debt would be worked out. Plus, there was doubt whether Buckhead voters would have approved the measure at all.
In an email to supporters, Buckhead City’s chief proponent Bill White admitted defeat . . . for this year, at least. “We will never give up until Buckhead gets to VOTE,” he wrote.
Okefenokee Protection Act
Supporters of the Okefenokee Protection Act, which would have banned mining near Georgia’s famous freshwater swamp, were hopeful that take two of this bill might fare better than last year, but it never made it out of committee. According to people familiar with the legislation, lobbyists on behalf of mining interests worked hard to cultivate opposition amongst House members. Some lawmakers expressed concern that the bill would curtail property rights by banning the leasing of mining rights under private land.
A late effort to pass a resolution for the creation of a study committee also didn’t advance. But Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville), the bill’s chief sponsor, said she’ll tackle it again next session: “I will be working with many others throughout the rest of the year to keep the issue moving,” she told Atlanta.
Bills that passed with applause all around
It’s not all angry gavel-banging. Here are a couple bills that passed with lots of good feeling.
Izzy’s Law to regulate swim lessons
Both chambers unanimously passed Izzy’s Law, which commemorates 4-year-old Israel “Izzy” Scott, who tragically died during a swim lesson in Burke County in 2022. SB 107 mandates the Department of Public Health to create a downloadable safety plan for private swim instructors and require that they have a safety plan before giving lessons.
“I am honored to see the passage of this legislation that will create a safer Georgia and thoughtfully honor the life of Israel Scott,” said Sen. Max Burns (R-Sylvania) when the bill passed.
Expanded welfare benefits for pregnant women
Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided on whether to fully expand Medicare in Georgia, but there’s been modest bipartisan support for giving pregnant people a bit more help. HB 129 was sponsored by freshman Rep. Soo Hong (R-Lawrenceville); it allows mothers to file for federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) benefits as soon as they are pregnant, rather than wait until they give birth.
It passed nearly unanimously in both chambers. Governor Kemp—who asked for the legislation during his State of the State address in January—will likely sign it soon.