Campaign donations bill slammed by transparency critics clears Georgia Senate

A bill to create new fundraising committees for political campaigns in Georgia that critics say could increase the influence of “dark money” passed in the state Senate on Friday.

Sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the bill would create so-called “leadership committees” run by the governor, lieutenant governor and their opponents – plus top leaders in the General Assembly – to collect campaign donations ahead of statewide and legislative elections.

Those leadership committees would have to disclose the names of donors but would not be subject to candidate contribution limits ranging from $14,000 to $22,200 for statewide seats and $5,600 to $8,600 per donor, depending on whether a candidate is forced into primary or general-election runoffs.

Mullis, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, framed the leadership committees proposed in his bill as avenues for promoting transparency in political spending that both Republicans and Democrats could use.

“This helps each side equally,” Mullis said from the Senate floor Friday. “The main emphasis on this bill is transparency – to make sure every expenditure is disclosed [and] every dollar that comes into this campaign … is disclosed.”

Critics argue allowing leadership committees in Georgia could serve as a workaround for candidates to receive campaign funds from dark-money groups not bound by contribution limits and from special interests that could steer money to state lawmakers during the legislative session.

Currently, Georgia law forbids members of the General Assembly from campaigning or accepting donations during the session due to the influence special-interest groups could wield to push through their favored policies.

Nothing in the bill that passed the Senate Friday would prevent dark-money groups from maintaining a foothold in Georgia politics, said state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta. She called Mullis’ characterization that leadership committees boost transparency as “laughable”.

“If you think this is good for the people we represent, then you might want to do a double-take,” Jordan said. “This is what makes people not trust the system and not trust us.”

The bill cleared the Senate by a nearly party-line vote, with Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, the lone Republican to vote against. It now heads to the Georgia House of Representatives.

Several GOP leaders in the Senate are among the bill’s cosponsors, including President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville; Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, and Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. Other cosponsors include Sens. John Kennedy, R-Macon; Larry Walker III, R-Perry; Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge; and Bill Cowsert, R-Athens.

Anti-hazing bill for Georgia colleges clears state Senate

A bill to criminalize hazing on Georgia college and university campuses that comes after the death of a fraternity pledge in Louisiana passed in the state Senate on Friday.

Sponsored by state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, the bill would make it a felony with prison time and a $50,000 fine for anyone who injures or contributes to killing a member of a fraternity, sorority or other college club through hazing, including by alcohol abuse or physical torture.

Those who do not intervene to stop life-threatening hazing activities would face misdemeanor charges, while those who report hazing allegations to authorities would enjoy legal protections in the event of criminal prosecution or civil claims.

The bill would also give the state Attorney General authority to bring civil suits against fraternities and other college groups that participate in dangerous hazing, as well as organizations that turn a blind eye to that behavior. It would also require schools to produce annual reports on proven hazing incidents.

Albers brought the same bill last year, which passed the Senate but stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  He said fraternities and other clubs overall are solid organizations that perform good work in their school communities – but which have also been breeding grounds at times for abuse.

“This bill will ultimately save lives and protect our youth,” Albers said from the Senate floor Friday.

Albers’ bill stems from the 2017 death of Louisiana State University student Max Gruver, who died from alcohol poisoning after being hazed by members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

Gruver, a 2017 graduate from Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell, was forced to drink liquor for failing to correctly answer fraternity-related trivia questions. His death led to the arrests of several fraternity members and a felony negligent homicide conviction of the ringleader.

The bill, titled the “Max Gruver Act,” now heads to the state House of Representatives.

Its co-sponsors include state Sens. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough; John Kennedy, R-Macon; Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome; Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta; Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro; and Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.

School sports bills draw backlash from Georgia transgender advocates

Dozens of student athletes in Georgia girls’ sports joined state Rep. Phillip Singleton (center) to support his bill banning transgender participation on Feb. 4, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – A trio of bills aimed at separating Georgia school sports teams between children assigned male or female at birth have cropped up in the General Assembly, sparking backlash from LGBTQ advocates who view the measures as discriminatory toward transgender persons.

One measure by state Rep. Philip Singleton, R-Sharpsburg, has taken the brunt of the focus for its proposal to ban “biological boys” from playing on school sports teams with “biological girls,” as well as permit lawsuits against schools that defy splitting up different-gendered student athletes.

Another bill, by state Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, would require similar school-sports separations as Singleton’s measure, likewise legally defining “gender” as “a person’s biological sex at birth” in state law.

It would also require a panel of three doctors to review information on a “student’s reproductive organs, genetic makeup and other medically relevant factors” if parents seek to waive having their kids comply with the male-female sports rules.

A third measure filed Thursday by state Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, would also separate high school athletes based on gender, defined as “biological sex.” It would further require Georgia public colleges and universities to do the same by making “all determinations based on sex and not on gender.”

LGBTQ advocates have long challenged moves to conflate gender with sex, citing research that disputes equating a person’s sexual identity with their sex organs. They argue Singleton’s bill, the only one of the three to face a General Assembly hearing so far, could ostracize Georgia’s transgender students.

“We know from our country’s history that separate but equal is never equal,” said Heidi Miracle, parent of a transgender daughter and the community engagement director for the LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit PFLAG’s Woodstock chapter.

“Transgender youth need to fit in, to be accepted,” Miracle said at a recent hearing on Singleton’s bill. “To force them to be on a team with a gender identity that does not match their own and against their will would be devastating.”

Singleton, who introduced a similar measure last year, has dismissed criticism that his bill targets transgender youths in Georgia, arguing its intent is to promote fairness in female high-school sports while stressing that “biological differences at birth” give male athletes a competitive advantage.

“This bill is not about transgender athletes,” Singleton said. “This bill is about protecting girls’ sports. There’s noise that’s trying to detract from that…. We’re trying to prevent people from being hurt in Georgia.”

Opponents of Singleton’s bill have also warned it could prompt popular sporting events like the NCAA basketball tournament and socially conscious business groups to abandon Georgia, threatening economic damage similar to what North Carolina faced for passing a bill to restrict bathroom use according to gender in 2016.

“When LGBTQ people don’t feel welcome at work or in the community, they’re less likely to stay,” said Chris Lugo, executive director of OUT Georgia Business Alliance. “Employee turnover is a drag on our state economy and business competitiveness.”

Supporters have rallied behind Singleton’s measure, arguing male athletes have biological advantages over female athletes and should not be allowed to potentially create unfair playing fields. Harbin’s bill, likewise, is co-sponsored by more than half of the state Senate’s Republican members.

“This is an actual pro-women legislation,” Rep. Sheri Gilligan, R-Cumming, said about Singleton’s bill. “And there is nothing discriminatory about laws that protect equal opportunities for females and female athletes.”

Another measure, sponsored by Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-Marietta, would forbid Georgia doctors from performing sex-reassignment surgeries on anyone younger than 18, with felony charges resulting from ignoring the proposed ban.

The Georgia Republican-backed bills on sex and gender follow President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 order to boost federal protections against gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination, aiming to relieve kids from “worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room or school sports.”

Biden’s order was hailed by LGBTQ advocacy groups including the Human Rights Campaign, which said the protections “will have a real and practical impact on the day-to-day lives of the approximately 11 million LGBTQ adults and millions more LGBTQ youth in the United States.”

Other groups have panned Biden’s order, calling it a step too far that could harm female athletes. The nonprofit Independent Women’s Voice, which backs Singleton’s bill, said the order “jeopardizes the future of female sports and may even place girls and women in physical danger.”

Singleton’s bill and others also come as the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act on Thursday, which would bolster protections against gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination in jobs, housing and public areas like restaurants.

All six of Georgia’s Democratic U.S. House members voted in favor of the Equality Act. All eight Republicans voted against it. The measure now heads to the U.S. Senate.

Georgia House panel approves trust funds dedication bill

Georgia Rep. Bert Reeves

ATLANTA – The money deposited in nine state-run trust funds could be used for no other purpose under legislation that cleared the Georgia House Appropriations Committee Friday.

House Bill 511 is the follow-up to a constitutional amendment Georgia voters ratified overwhelmingly last fall requiring all revenues the state’s dedicated trust funds collect to remain inside those programs rather than be diverted into the general fund budget.

The late Georgia Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, championed the constitutional amendment for years to prevent Georgia governors and legislative leaders from raiding the state’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds during economic downturns when money is tight.

The constitutional amendment finally gained passage last year following the unexpected death of Powell in November 2019 at age 67.

“When we in this General Assembly create and pass a dedicated fee to go to a certain purpose … it should go to the purpose it was intended for,” Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, who has shepherded the legislation since Powell’s death, told committee members Friday.

While Powell developed the proposal with the Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds in mind, the bill the committee adopted Friday also would apply to the following:

  • State Children’s Trust Fund, which goes to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.
  • Wildlife Endowment Trust Fund, a tax on hunting and fishing licenses that supports state wildlife programs.
  • Georgia Trauma Care Network, which funds trauma care services through a fine on “super speeders.”
  • Transportation Trust Fund, which supports road projects through the state’s motor fuels tax.
  • Georgia Agricultural Trust Fund, which goes toward marketing the state’s farm products and state-run farmers’ markets.
  • Fireworks Trust Fund, a sales tax on fireworks that goes toward trauma care and firefighter training.
  • Georgia Transit Trust Fund, a per-ride tax on ride-sharing services that helps fund public transit improvements.

The constitutional amendment ratified last fall includes a 10-year sunset date to give lawmakers a chance to review each trust fund and ensure the services it helps pay for are still needed.

It allows governors and legislatures to suspend the dedication of trust fund revenues during economic emergencies to free up those funds for general spending needs.

Also, the total amount dedicated to the trust funds during a given fiscal year could not exceed 1% of the state’s budget from the previous fiscal year.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said the transit trust fund is particularly significant because it represents the first dedicated source of state funding for transit projects. The General Assembly earmarked $75 million in one-shot bond financing for transit in 2015.

“Transit has been neglected,” Smyre said. “This is a great step.”

The bill now moves to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.


Georgia sports betting backers switch to constitutional amendment

ATLANTA – Legislation to legalize online sports betting in Georgia gained momentum in the state Senate Thursday just as it appeared to get sidetracked in the Georgia House of Representatives.

A Senate committee passed a constitutional amendment that would put sports betting on the statewide ballot next year for Georgia voters to decide.

Senators decided to pursue the referendum route after the House postponed a floor vote on a bill aimed at legalizing sports betting without changing the state Constitution.

“It looks like it might not fare well in the House,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee. “[A constitutional amendment] might be the way to go.”

Sports betting supporters, including an alliance of Atlanta’s four pro sports teams, have been pushing since last year for lawmakers to legalize betting on sports by statute, which would need only simple majority votes of the House and Senate.

Constitutional amendments require two-thirds majorities in each of the two legislative chambers, a higher hurdle that backers of legalizing casino gambling and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing have been unable to clear in the General Assembly in a decade of effort.

Cowsert said he has become convinced that passing a statute authorizing the Georgia Lottery Corp. to oversee sports betting without amending the Constitution wouldn’t overcome a court challenge.

“It’s a real stretch to call sports betting a lottery game,” he said. “We’re on pretty thin ice to convince a court.”

Cowsert said going the constitutional amendment route also would let lawmakers dedicate the proceeds from sports betting to purposes other than Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs, which the lottery helps fund.

The constitutional amendment the committee approved Thursday would dedicate the proceeds instead to needs-based college scholarships, rural health care and deployment of broadband in unserved areas.

“I think this will probably generate much broader support for this initiative,” Cowsert said

Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, said HOPE originally was a needs-based scholarship program when voters approved the lottery in the early 1990s. After lottery sales took off, lawmakers removed an income cap that had been placed on scholarship awards, and HOPE become a merit-based program.

Besides the constitutional change, the committee also approved a 42-page “enabling” bill with details on how sports betting would be conducted in Georgia.

Under the bill, sportsbooks would pay a 16% tax on their income to the state.

The lottery board would license at least six companies such as FanDuel and DraftKings to operate online sportsbooks in Georgia. The companies would pay an application fee of $10,000 and annual operating fees of $100,000.

 While wagering on college sports would be allowed, bettors could not wagers on Georgia’s sports teams.

Bettors would have to be located physically inside the state, a provision that would be enforced by geofencing technology.

As was the case during previous legislative hearings on legalizing gambling, the sports betting proposal drew opposition from representatives of faith-based groups.

Mike Griffin, representing the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said online sports betting, which can be accessed through the convenience of a cellphone, is particularly prone to attracting problem gamblers.

“The majority of people who gamble are responsible” he said. “It’s the irresponsible people who contribute the most money.”

Cowsert said the legislation includes provisions to discourage addictive gambling. It would limit bettors to spending no more than $2,500 a month and prohibit sportsbooks from extending credit to bettors, he said.

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, argued sports betting is already taking place illegally in Georgia, but the state isn’t benefitting because it can’t be taxed.

“This puts structure in it … [and] revenue that goes to important uses,” he said. “The money goes to a good cause. Right now, it goes to the bookie.”

The constitutional amendment and enabling bill now head to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule votes on the Senate floor.