Time is up this year for Georgia legislators to shepherd their bills across the finish line before the gavel fell for the last time to end the 2022 legislative session.
House and Senate lawmakers adjourned “Sine Die” around midnight, after considering hundreds of bills over the past three months. A grueling floor and committee meeting schedule kept lawmakers busy for the past 40 legislative days.
A few bright spots were sprinkled in between — like the opportunity to pose for photos with both the Major League Baseball World Series and College Football National Championship trophies.
By late in the evening Monday, significant and some controversial pieces of legislation hadn’t yet emerged for debate. Chambers batted back and forth over the scope of the proposed tax cut, were sent to confer on how to address the state’s medical marijuana lock jam and still hadn’t taken next year’s $30 billion budget.
Legislators eventually found common ground on tax cuts and the state’s spending plan, among other big ticket items.
Gov. Brian Kemp made an appearance in both chambers around 8 p.m. and had one message for lawmakers: Your work for the night is not done. The Republican urged passage of legislation that bans transgender athletes from high school sports and limits discussions around race in classrooms.
A last-minute amendment to a bill gave the Georgia High School Athletic Association the authority to create policies surrounding transgender girls’ participation in athletics.
Not everything made the final gavel before lawmakers dispersed for their hometowns across the state for a well-deserved off season.
To the dismay of advocates, lawmakers failed to agree on a solution to the medical marijuana licensing issues. A constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting in Georgia also faltered.
A controversial bill that would ban the mailing of abortion-inducing drugs without seeing a medical provider in person also failed to get a final vote.
Here are what bills are on their way to the governor’s desk — or already have his signature.
Hailed as the most significant legislation passed this session, lawmakers unanimously passed House Bill 1013, a substantial mental health reform package that aims to create parity across treatment and insurance coverage.
The Mental Health Parity Act was championed by House Speaker David Ralston who has said that mental health treatment in Georgia has far been inadequate. The final bill requires insurance providers to cover mental health diagnosis on par with physical conditions. It also aims to increase the number of mental health professionals across the state.
“Today, hope won,” Ralston said last week, after the final vote in the House. “Countless Georgians will know we’ve heard their despair and frustration.”
In a show of support, Kemp, flanked by legislative leaders, signed the bill into law during a massive ceremony on Sine Die.
Along with HB 1013, legislators unanimously passed Senate Bill 403, which creates a statewide framework for mental health professionals to act as co-responders with law enforcement officers on crisis calls.
Among Kemp’s legislative priorities, a measure that would allow Georgians to carry a concealed handgun in public without first obtaining a weapons carry license was backed by lawmakers.
Known as permitless, or “constitutional” carry, SB 319 allows individuals who are already legally able to have a firearm to carry their weapon in public without first going through the licensing process.
Proponents said that the bill simply does away with extra paperwork for Georgia gun owners. But critics say it eliminates one of the few background checks Georgia has on the books and would let dangerous criminals slip through the cracks at a time when gun violence is at a high.
An analysis conducted by GPB News found that almost all Georgia counties have over a 90% approval rating for concealed carry applications.
Transgender athletes in sports
In a last-minute amendment, Georgia legislators passed a weaker version of an earlier measure that sought to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports.
New language added to HB 1084, that deals with “divisive concepts” taught in schools, opens the door for the Georgia High School Association to create policies that would ban transgender women from competing in public high school athletics.
House lawmakers pushed back against Senate legislation that originally banned schools themselves from competing against other schools that allow transgender women to participate.
House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said lawmakers put the decision in the hands of Georgia High School Association leadership.
“We’re not targeting them because it’ll be a GHSA determination,” he said after the House adjourned. “I’m gonna communicate to them that I don’t want them targeted.”
Divisive concepts, parental rights
Education policy took center stage in the bitter partisan battles on full display this session. Republican lawmakers launched a series of efforts to ban “critical race theory” from K-12 classrooms — although it is not taught in any of those Georgia schools.
Legislators passed HB1084 which bans a list of “divisive concepts” from classroom discussions, which GOP lawmakers define as a variety of ideas regarding race. Educators decried the measure as an “attack” on teachers, who faced extreme hardships during the pandemic.
Lawmakers also moved to increase parents’ oversight of what their student is being taught in their classroom.
HB 1178 codifies into law a process for parents to request and review weeks of lesson plans from their child’s teacher — a process that educators testified already exists within school districts.
Under the bill, parents have the right to review classroom materials and the right to opt their child out of all sex education courses. Educators testified that parents already have access to curricula but teachers often have to make changes based on the needs of students.
After passing SB 202, a sweeping election law that came under intense scrutiny in 2021, this year lawmakers settled on only one minor change to the election process.
House lawmakers originally introduced a 39-page bill that included various provisions that changed what state agencies could investigate election fraud claims, gave the public access to inspect paper ballots and added security procedures elections officials called burdensome and unnecessary.
But the final election change that passed only gave the Georgia Bureau of Investigation original jurisdiction to investigate election law violations.
Kemp’s COVID bills
Kemp included two pieces of legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic among his flurry of legislative priorities for the session.
Passed and already signed into law, the Unmask Georgia Students Act allows parents to opt their child out of school district mask policies, essentially rendering mask mandates within classrooms not enforceable.
Most Georgia schools have already done away with mask mandates as infection rates have declined. The law goes into effect immediately and runs until June 2027. The governor, in conjunction with the Department of Public Health, have the authority to supersede it during public health emergencies.
Lawmakers also backed a measure that bans so-called “vaccine passports.” The bill prohibits any state agency, local government or school from requiring anyone to get a COVID-19 vaccination. The stipulation does not apply to hospitals or medical facilities and expires June 2023.
End of the road for some
For some high-profile legislators, it was their last session under the Gold Dome.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan is not seeking reelection after serving one term. The Republican became an unlikely and prominent critic of former President Donald Trump and the direction of the party after the 2020 election.
During his farewell speech, Duncan continued to urge lawmakers to put “policy over politics.” He described how his family endured the unrelenting attacks against him by the former president and his supporters.
“I believe now more than ever, that doing the right thing will never be the wrong thing,” he said.
On the last day, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle honored Dean of the House, Columbus Rep. Calvin Smyre, who has been nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
The 74-year-old Democrat was praised as a skilled negotiator and dedicated public servant who was instrumental in passing historic legislation — including last session’s hate crimes law.
“For the past 48 years, I have worn this name badge as a badge of honor,” Smyre said. “Over the years, I’ve had many many leadership positions and titles, but being called Dean of this house, while it is the least of power, it is the one I admire the most.”
This story comes to The Georgia Sun through a reporting partnership with GA Today, a non-profit newsroom focused on reporting in Georgia.