ATLANTA – In the final hours of its 2022 session, Georgia's General Assembly pivoted from celebrating a towering bipartisan mental health overhaul to bitterly debating Republican efforts to ban transgender girls from playing sports — one of many about-faces in a year when the GOP is squarely focused on upcoming election primaries.
Driving the dynamic was the need for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to shore up his conservative credentials against a challenge from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, as well other lawmakers' bids for statewide office.
Kemp ran through a laundry list of achievements as he addressed lawmakers late Monday, calling the session “historic” and noting achievements including $5,000 pay raises for university and state employees and $2,000 raises for teachers that he proposed and lawmakers approved.
Even Democrats admitted that Republicans pushed through their agenda, including legislation allowing residents to carry handguns without a permit, making it easier for parents to challenge school materials, banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” on race and letting the Georgia Bureau of Investigation start election fraud investigations on its own.
"I do think that they have a lot to run on," said Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat. “That’s something that they can give to the people and say, ‘This is what we did for you.’”
But Democrats and even some Republicans warned of a right-wing Republican fringe that believes former President Donald Trump's false claims about a stolen 2020 election and baseless warnings that the mental health care bill, passed with no dissenting votes, could lead to a World Health Organization takeover of Georgia's health system.
In a March 11 speech opposing permitless carry, Democratic Rep. Josh McLaurin of Sandy Springs said he had been warned when he first came to the Capitol "that some people just want to burn the building down." But he said it now appeared that “the whole majority in the whole House wants to finally burn it down together.”
“The majority party has made the calculation that the short-term boost they get from the base outweighs the long-term damage to the brand and public policy consequences," McLaurin warned. "That is what you own tonight.”
Rep. Randy Nix, a LaGrange Republican retiring after 16 years in the House, warned against what he called “CAVE people”, or “citizens against virtually everything” in a March 25 farewell speech. He said lawmakers should rebuff noisy constituents peddling nonsense about COVID-19, election law and mental health.
“Since they have no positive agenda of their own, they love to spread outlandish conspiracy theories and outright lies to try and destroy the good and noble work that you leaders are doing here, and I want to thank you for holding strong,” Nix said.
Despite such admonishments, what McLaurin called the “drift right” dynamic was often at play.
In the face of Trump's efforts to oust him, Kemp certainly went right. He embraced bills he had shied away from last year, including one to let parents opt out of school mask mandates during the coronavirus pandemic and another to ban transgender girls from playing high school sports. Although Kemp backed permitless gun carry in his 2018 run, the issue appeared moribund until he resurrected it at the start of this year's session.
Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller of Gainesville, who is being challenged by Trump-endorsed state Sen. Burt Jones of Jackson in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, worked hard to prove his conservative credentials, even pushing bills that were obviously doomed. The Senate, for example, handily defeated Miller's broad school voucher bill after House Speaker David Ralston had declared the issue dead for the session. Observers noted that the vote allowed Miller to erase the memory of his own vote against an earlier voucher bill.
Appealing to the base also served many Republican incumbents after GOP-led redistricting weakened Democratic competitiveness in many Republican areas.
Some efforts could backfire. Outgoing Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican, championed a bill that would have banned Georgia's government from buying from Chinese government-owned companies. The bill foundered late in the session after a House amendment broadening the prohibitions raised questions about whether Georgia agencies would be banned from buying from all Chinese companies. Chinese appliance maker Haier, with a 2,600-worker stove factory in LaFayette, is one of the largest employers in Mullis' district.
Ralston, often the force for moderation, did turn back some initiatives. The House killed an abortion bill that would have required women to get an in-person exam and ultrasound before obtaining abortion pills. Ralston claimed the House ran out of time after his chamber spent long stretches of Monday doing nothing.
Democrats expressed concern about the Republicans' ongoing push for legislation aimed at satisfying extreme-right voters.
“You cannot white-knuckle the political highway for much longer,” Rep. Matthew Wilson of Brookhaven said last month. The candidate for insurance commissioner urged Republicans to stop catering to the most extreme parts of their party, saying that winning "does not require that you squeeze every last drop of power out of the loony bin.”
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.