Georgia lawmakers get incomplete grade in transition year
For the Georgia General Assembly, 2023 was a year when a lot of things didn't happen.
Many Georgia legislative sessions are ultimately remembered for one issue — abortion restrictions in 2019, a hate crimes law after the death of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, election law changes in 2021 and mental health improvements last year.
But there's no one policy fight that sums up 2023. Many big issues ended in defeat or a decision delayed until 2024. Creating Buckhead city, legalizing sports betting and allowing educational vouchers lost. Efforts to loosen hospital permitting requirements, improve mental health and protect renters were stymied.
Instead, 2023 may be remembered for new leaders in Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns, and a struggle over who defines priorities.
"This year, you've got to say it's a transitional year," said House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat. "And I think it's a transition from all kinds of angles, right? You have so many new folks in top leadership and trying to figure out what this system is."
That's not to say nothing passed. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp got most of what he wanted in a pair of $1 billion one-time tax breaks for income taxpayers and homeowners, full tuition funded for all HOPE Scholarship recipients, pay raises for employees and teachers and harsher sentences for gang members.
Republican majorities delivered wins for partisans by banning some gender-affirming care for transgender youth and banning counties from accepting outside funds for elections.
But while Jones and Burns made nice in the moments after the session ended, each had killed the other's top bills.
"I'm disappointed again that the value that we saw in the mental health legislation was not shared in the Senate," Burns said of House efforts to build on last year's mental health overhaul anchored by the late Speaker David Ralston. Burns was elected speaker after Ralston's death.
Jones vowed he would keep trying to make it easier to build hospitals after the House refused a bill allowing hospitals to be constructed without a state certificate of need in smaller counties. The bill could have benefited Jones' hometown in Butts County with a proposed hospital that could have been built on land owned by Jones' father.
"I've watched this CON process stall hospital projects, I've watched it destroy hospital projects in rural Georgia," Jones said. "And I'm going to keep pushing that issue."
That dispute spilled over into the budget, where senators insisted on a $66 million cut to universities, in part because system leaders defended a deal for Wellstar Health System to take over Augusta University's hospitals. Wellstar opposes Jones' hospital plan because it owns the existing hospital in Butts County.
Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett of Dublin said universities were cut because funding for new programs "has to come from somewhere," while also proclaiming "this House does not play politics with the budget."
University System Chancellor Sonny Perdue, a former governor, called the cut "an incredibly disappointing outcome" in a statement Thursday. He said it "will have a significant impact" because it comes atop earlier cuts and with enrollment falling at most of the 26 colleges.
Kemp couldn't stop the budget cut and couldn't muscle through vouchers. A group of 16 mostly rural House Republicans defied the governor's advocacy of a plan to give $6,500 to students who wanted out of poorly performing public schools.
But Kemp remains powerful after his triumphal reelection over Democrat Stacey Abrams, seldom having to publicly push. One exception was the plan to allow Buckhead to vote on seceding from Atlanta. That measure's Senate defeat was sealed when Kemp's lawyer sent out a memo so scathing that it should have had "veto threat" scrawled across it in red crayon.
Some Senate legislative failures may stem from Jones' decision to loosen controls on Republicans, allowing them to advance legislation he didn't always dictate. Senators voted down two separate approaches to sports betting.
Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said her party members were shut out of Senate discussions, saying Jones isn't ready to displace the House speaker as Georgia's most powerful legislator.
"I think that he has a lot more to learn before he could grab that kind of power," Butler said Wednesday.
Greater freedom led to some half-baked legislation roiling committee meetings. Sen. Carden Summers, a Cordele Republican, brought forward a bill to regulate discussion of gender identity in public schools but also at private schools and camps. It was scorned by social conservatives who didn't want private schools regulated or the concept of gender identity enshrined in law.
Controls remained tighter in the House. Burns' minimalistic agenda of renter protections and mental health had strong support among Democrats, prolonging the speaker's honeymoon.
Ultimately, though, the grade for both Burns and Jones is incomplete. The second half of the term in 2024 will show how much they can get done.
"It's a two year process," Jones said. "And that's what I always try to tell people: Don't get disappointed when you don't have something to pass the first year."