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Newton lawmakers talk ‘productive,’ polarizing legislative session

Election reform has remained at the center of attention ever since the Georgia General Assembly 2021 session came to a close last week, but while polarizing, the session was also quite productive in the eyes of two of Newton County’s delegates.

Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, said he was proud to see the final passage of his bills including those on probation reform, a tuition waiver for foster children and a bill that “makes certain that affordable health insurance plans that cover pre-exisiting conditions will always be available for Georgians.”

However, he said the election bill that eliminated the signature match process for absentee ballots and replaced it with the state-issued identification numbers was the “most important bill of this session.”

“There were many other bills that didn’t make it across the finish line,” Strickland said, “but this just gives us more time to make sure these measures are perfected in the final year of this two-year process.”

The election bill also limits the placement of drop boxes for absentee ballots to inside election offices and early voting locations, and gives state election officials the authority to take over poor-performing local election boards. In addition, the bill expands early voting to two Saturdays and gives counties the option to hold poll hours on two Sundays. An earlier version of the legislation had proposed shrinking early voting on Sundays. 

The measure codifies drop boxes for absentee ballots for the first time in Georgia. Drop boxes were allowed during the last election cycle as part of the public health emergency Gov. Brian Kemp declared because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill bans non-poll workers handing out food and drinks within 150 feet of voters waiting in line outside polling places as a way to prevent illegal electioneering.

Kemp’s signing the legislation into law sparked several lawsuits from a host of groups including the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the New Georgia Project, which argue the election changes violate the federal Voting Rights Act and constitutional free-speech rights.

Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, called the session a productive one as well. He saw a handful of military-related bills he either drafted or co-sponsored be passed, as well as his teacher tax credit bill, which gives $3,000 for five years to teachers willing to relocate to a “vey rural or lowest 5% performing school.”

“Most states have programs like this, and they are usually very successful,” Belton stated. 

Belton said he was pleased to see the Citizen’s Arrest Law be repealed and a “porch pirates” measure be passed to add penalties for those “who prey on UPS and FedEx type deliveries to your front door.”

As for the election reform bill, Belton called it “necessary and fair.”

“Most of the media characterizations of this measure are false,” Belton stated. “We are actually expanding hours, expanding weekend voting and expanding drop boxes … all while preserving no-excuse absentee balloting. [The reason most people are upset about the bill] is the fact we have strengthened the security of the vote by adding a drivers license (or other means of identification) to a request for an absentee ballot.

“If voting is sacred, as nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle claims, [then] it should be secure,” he added. “Actually, it is far easier to vote in Georgia – before and after the passage of this law – than in many northeastern states that are hypocritically criticizing us.”

More on Belton’s thoughts concerning the 2021 legislative session can be read in his column, which will be featured at and in a future edition of The Covington News.

In other business to take place during the session, lawmakers avoided making sizable cuts to the state’s budget similar to last year’s $2.2 billion taken from various state agencies, including public schools, and approved several tax exemptions. The tax break bill reportedly provided new or expanded existing tax credits to medical equipment and pharmaceutical manufacturers, performing arts venues, companies that repair expensive yachts and short-line railroads.

State legislators also moved to put Georgia on daylight saving time permanently and get college student athletes financial compensation for use of their name, image or likeness.

An attempt to permit regulated sports betting in Georgia failed despite being pitched as a way to raise more money for the HOPE Scholarship program and need-based scholarships.

Next on the General Assembly’s docket is redrawing the boundaries of Georgia’s legislative and congressional districts.

State Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, and State Rep. Sharon Henderson, D-Covington, did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.

“Most of the media characterizations of this (election reform) measure are false.”
State Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead