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Voting laws, criminal justice reform top 2021 Georgia General Assembly agenda

ATLANTA — Legislative leaders are promising to tackle two issues that dominated the news in Georgia and across the nation when the 2021 General Assembly session kicks off on Monday.

Weeks of protests and legal challenges sparked by President-elect Joe Biden’s razor-thin victory over President Donald Trump in Georgia and other battleground states have prompted a call for changes to voting laws in Georgia, including restrictions on mail-in voting.

Street demonstrations across America following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis, and the shooting death of another Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, by white vigilantes in Georgia provided momentum for state lawmakers to pass a hate-crimes bill last June and pledge to follow up with more criminal-justice reforms this year.

The General Assembly also will fulfill the annual legal requirement of passing a balanced state budget, buoyed by healthier-than-expected state revenues but hampered by demands from state agencies to restore at least some of the spending cuts the legislature imposed last year.

And lawmakers will renew what has become an annual debate over whether to legalize gambling in Georgia in various forms, from online sports betting and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing to casinos.

Proposals to change Georgia’s election laws will take center stage under the Gold Dome as lawmakers from both parties grapple with changing voter patterns that saw the 2020 presidential election and both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats flip in Democrats’ favor.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is calling for tightening state voter ID laws for mail-in ballots and eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, which since 2005 has allowed Georgians to request absentee ballots for any reason, not just because they live out of state or are physically impaired.

The June 9 primaries, Nov. 3 general election and Jan. 5 Senate runoffs each saw more than one million absentee ballots cast, shattering previous mail-in voting records.

Raffensperger traced slow turnaround times that sparked suspicions over Georgia’s election integrity to the flood of absentee ballots.

“It makes no sense when we have three weeks of in-person early voting available,” Raffensperger told state lawmakers last month. “It opens the door to potential illegal voting.”

House Speaker David Ralston said another priority will be getting rid of the “jungle primary” law in Georgia, which set the stage for the huge field of 21 candidates in November’s special election for the Senate seat held by Republican Kelly Loeffler.

It opened the door for former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, to split the GOP vote with Loeffler, forcing last week’s runoff that resulted in Loeffler’s loss to Democrat Raphael Warnock.

“I don’t know who could be in favor of a jungle primary anymore,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Ralston said he also expects the General Assembly to consider repealing Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, which has been invoked by the defendants in the Arbery case, as a follow-up to last year’s hate crimes measure.

Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Garden City, pre-filed a bill last month to do just that. He said the citizen’s arrest law dates back to the 19th century and is out of date.

“The average person can pick up a phone, dial 911 and have the professionals handle it,” Gilliard said.

Gilliard said the Arbery case and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests will put momentum behind repealing the citizen’s arrest law.

“This has been a year where people all over the world sounded an alarm,” he said. “We’ve got to listen to the voice and the will of the people.”

Legislative budget writers enter the 2021 General Assembly session more optimistic than might have been expected in the midst of a pandemic-driven economic slowdown that has forced thousands of businesses to close and put several million Georgians on unemployment. State tax revenues have been coming in at a healthy pace in recent months.

With Democrats taking over the White House and both houses of Congress, the state can expect more federal aid than would have been likely otherwise, said Danny Kanso, tax and budget policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Congressional Republicans dug in their heels last fall against putting more COVID-19 relief toward state and local government affected by the pandemic.

“The odds of getting significant aid to state and local governments is increasing substantially,” Kanso said.

But Georgia Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery noted the 2021 session is starting with the state in a financial hole, since the General Assembly was forced to cut agency spending by $2.2 billion last year.

“We’re doing better than we thought we would, but I don’t think we’ll be in a position to add that $2.2 billion back,” said Tillery, R-Vidalia.

Ralston said legislative Republicans have yet to fulfill a commitment to voters to follow through with the second installment of a state income tax cut and a 2% teacher pay raise.

“People need their money,” he said. “They need to keep more of their money.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said raising teacher pay remains a priority but will be a tough sell during this session because of the economic impacts of COVID-19.

“We still want to do the pay raise,” he said. “It’s just exactly when we can get to that, I think it’s a little early to commit as to when. … If we have revenues, we’ve got to make sure that we restore funding to our schools.”

While lawmakers face no legal obligation to address the legalized gambling issue every year as they do with the budget, it has become a perennial subject of debate under the Gold Dome.

Nothing has come close to passing, however, due to the difficulty of amassing the two-thirds majorities in each legislative chamber necessary to approve a constitutional amendment.  Another obstacle has been opposition from religious conservatives.

A proposal to legalize online sports betting has the best chance of passing this year for two reasons. Supporters say it will not require a constitutional change because it can be accomplished by adding it to the current state law governing the Georgia Lottery program.

Sports betting also is being backed by a coalition of Atlanta’s four pro sports teams: the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Atlanta United.

Billy Linville, spokesman for the Georgia Professional Sports Alliance, said the industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and needs the boost sports betting would give to fan interest.

“Our professional sports teams in Georgia generate billions of dollars for our state and thousands of jobs,” he said. “[The teams] have to enhance their engagement with fans or they’ll go elsewhere.”

Backers of casinos and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing also will back pushing those measures. But since they would require a constitutional amendment putting them on the statewide ballot for Georgia voters to decide, they face longer odds.

2021 General Assembly: Key players

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge:

Elected the 73rd speaker of the House by his legislative colleagues in 2010, Ralston has served in the House since 2003, representing a rural district in Northwest Georgia. He also served in the state Senate during the 1990s before losing a bid for Georgia attorney general in 1998.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R):

Elected Georgia’s 12th lieutenant governor in 2018, Duncan serves as president of the Georgia Senate, presiding over floor sessions and making committee assignments. The former professional baseball player and business owner served in the Georgia House from 2013 until 2017, representing a district in Forsyth County.

Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville

Elected to the state Senate in 2010 from a district that covers most of Hall County, Miller was chosen by his Senate colleagues in 2018 to serve as president pro tempore. In that role, he presides over the Senate when the lieutenant governor is absent and manages administrative duties for the Senate.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus

The longest serving member of the House, Smyre was elected in 1974. Arguably the most influential Democrat in the General Assembly, Smyre chaired the powerful Rules Committee when Democrats controlled the House. Among his major accomplishments was legislation in 2001 getting rid of the 1950s-era Georgia flag featuring the Confederate battle flag and creating a new state flag.

Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn

Elected to the House in 2004 representing a district in Barrow County, England has served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the starting place for legislative review of the annual state budget, for the last decade.

Lawmakers to watch:

House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon

Elected to the House in 2011 in a special election, Beverly was promoted to House minority leader by his Democratic colleagues in November following the loss of Rep. Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, to a Republican challenger. Beverly previously served as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain

Chosen by her Democratic colleagues in November to serve as the new Senate minority leader, Butler was elected back in 1998. A former chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, Butler succeeds longtime Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, who opted not to run for reelection.

Sen. Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia

Tillery, elected to the Senate in 2016 representing a rural district in Southeast Georgia, was appointed chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee last April following the death of Sen. Jack Hill. He received widespread praise for demonstrating strong leadership after assuming the powerful post on short notice.

Beau Evans of the Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.