Election years in the General Assembly are typically marked by politically motivated legislation.
But the trend is on steroids this year, as majority Republicans push a conservative agenda aimed at GOP base voters on topics from gun rights to abortion to what goes on in Georgia schools.
On Feb. 9, for example, legislative committees approved bills prohibiting Georgians from obtaining abortion-inducing drugs through the mail and forbidding transgender students born male from competing in girls’ sports.
That same afternoon, a committee also began debating a bill guaranteeing parental involvement in their children’s education.
Critics have derided the bills as unnecessary at best.
“What we’re seeing over and over this session is a solution in search of a problem,” Cecily Harsch-Kinnane, policy and outreach director for the group Public Education Matters and a former Atlanta Board of Education member, told members of the Senate Education and Youth Committee.
Several factors are at work making this election-year legislative session different, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
An unusual number of Republican lawmakers are running for statewide office this year and are seeking to establish their conservative bona fides with voters, Bullock said.
The list of those seeking higher office includes Georgia Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. He is running for lieutenant governor in the May GOP primary against state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Miller has garnered attention by introducing legislation to eliminate Georgia’s income tax and abolish absentee ballot drop boxes.
Early in the session, a constitutional amendment sponsored by Miller to allow only U.S. citizens to vote in Georgia was shot down because it failed to muster the two-thirds vote necessary for passage. Senate Democrats argued the measure isn’t needed because such a prohibition already exists in state law.
But the need for lawmakers to establish a high profile this year goes beyond those seeking statewide office. The General Assembly redrew the House and Senate maps last November in a redistricting process carried out every 10 years to account for population changes reflected in the U.S. Census.
As a result, many legislators will be shopping for votes from a lot of new constituents who aren’t familiar with them, Bullock said.
“The new districts are like open seats,” he said. “Being on the right side of one of these issues could help them form a connection with voters.”
Bullock said legislative Republicans also feel threatened this year by victories Democrats scored during the last election cycle, when President Joe Biden carried the Peach State and Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock became the first Georgia Democrats elected to the U.S. Senate since the late Max Cleland in 1996.
“[Republicans] see the handwriting on the wall.” Bullock said. “They see that Georgia is not a red-red state anymore.”
But if Georgia Republicans are backing a conservative agenda to appeal to GOP base voters, conservative activists say that’s what voters want.
Cole Muzio, president of Frontline Policy Action, a Georgia-based Christian organization, said polls the group has conducted among Georgia parents, grandparents and guardians have found strong support for “fairness in girls’ sports” and a high level of concern that schools are indoctrinating students in polarizing ideologies like critical race theory.
“We’ve seen a culture shift, from a values perspective, that’s largely gone unreported,” he said.
Republican leaders say there’s more to this year’s conservative agenda than election-year politics and are defending the merits of their legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan dismissed arguments from Democrats and their allies that the bills are unnecessary.
“This is not coming out of the blue,” Dugan, R-Carrollton, said of Senate Bill 377, which prohibits the teaching of nine “divisive concepts” in Georgia schools, colleges and universities.
Critics warn the bill’s language is so vague it could make history teachers afraid to talk about certain controversial subjects.
“We create a state of fear,” Robert Costley, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, said during a recent hearing. The group has not taken a formal position on the bill.
“If [teachers] do something wrong, we should hold them accountable,” Costley added. “But they shouldn’t have to be afraid to serve.”
But Dugan said there’s nothing in the divisive-concepts language – the heart of the bill – that prohibits an honest teaching of history.
“If you look through the nine bullets, the first half say, ‘You can’t,’ and the last half say, ‘You must,’ ” he said. “It says, ‘You must teach history, slavery, the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage.’
“But you can’t use your students in a manner that’s going to diminish their self-esteem. You can’t hold them culpable for something they had nothing to do with.”
Dugan denied accusations the bill is politically motivated.
“I’m doing this bill because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.
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