ATLANTA – The General Assembly passed much of Gov. Brian Kemp’s legislative agenda for 2023 during the 40-day session that ended shortly after midnight Thursday morning.
Republican majorities in the Georgia House and Senate approved the GOP governor’s $1 billion state income tax rebate and $950 million in property tax relief, promises Kemp made on the campaign trail last year ahead of his reelection to a second term. Lawmakers also enacted the governor’s tough-on-crime legislation cracking down on street gangs.
“You have made promises made promises kept,” Kemp told members of the House Wednesday night, hours before the General Assembly adjourned for the year.
But other Kemp-backed legislation fell short, including a second year of mental health reform that enjoyed bipartisan support, a bill offering private-school vouchers that was criticized by Democrats, and legislation banning no-cash bail for criminal suspects.
The mental health bill was a follow-up to reform legislation the General Assembly passed unanimously last year after the late House Speaker David Ralston made it a top priority. This year’s bill aimed to increase the size of the mental-health workforce in Georgia and make it easier for people who cycle between the streets, emergency rooms and jails to get the help they need.
But the only piece of House Bill 520 that made it through the Senate was a provision related to data collection senators attached to a separate piece of legislation.
House Speaker Jon Burns said he was disappointed with the Senate over that outcome.
“HB520 was a bipartisan measure in this House with only three ‘no’ votes,” said Burns, R-Newington. “We’ve always focused on people who need help and their family members. I’m sorry they will be kept waiting another year.”
“HB520 is not dead,” added Jeff Breedlove, chief of policy and communications for the Georgia Council for Recovery. “It’s just delayed.”
Senators expressed concerns over the cost of the mental health bill when it got to their side of the Capitol. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who presides over the Senate, put the price tag at $72 million.
The House mental health bill also got caught up in negotiations with the Senate over legislation creating an exemption for rural hospitals from Georgia’s certificate of need law, which requires applicants to demonstrate new health-care facilities or services are needed in the community they plan to locate.
Senate Bill 99 was statewide in implication but was prompted by plans to build a new hospital in Jones’ hometown of Jackson. The Senate passed the bill easily, but it failed to even get a committee vote in the House.
The legislature made progress on education during this year’s session. While the ambitious goal of overhauling the decades-old Quality Basic Education (QBE) k-12 student funding formula failed to gain traction, lawmakers supported Kemp’s recommendation to fully fund QBE for the second year in a row.
The General Assembly also agreed to restore full tuition coverage to the HOPE Scholarships program, which had fallen to as low as 80% in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
But Republicans were unable to get the vouchers bill over the finish line. The Senate passed the legislation in early March, voting along party lines. But it fell short by six votes in the House on the last day of the session when a handful of rural Republicans joined Democrats opposed to diverting funds from public schools in voting against it, reflecting the paucity of private schools in rural communities.
“That was tough vote,” said Burns, who supported the vouchers bill as a way to give parents more options for educating their children. “I’m sure you’ll see this issue come before us again.”
Another Republican-backed bill that failed called for prohibiting no-cash bail for a wide range of crimes from murder and rape to non-violent offenses including possession of marijuana.
The Senate passed the legislation along party lines in February, but the House raised objections to the Senate version of the bill. The two sides formed a joint conference committee on the last night of the session, but the General Assembly adjourned before the conferees could reach agreement.
Republicans and Democrats did see eye to eye on legislation aimed at accommodating the growth of electric vehicles in Georgia. After some controversy erupted over how much senators wanted to tax EVs to replace the revenue the state stands to lose as motorists move away from gasoline-powered care, the proposed tax rate was reduced somewhat and Senate Bill 146 passed overwhelmingly on the next-to-last day of the session.
Supporters of legalized gambling weren’t so fortunate. Sports betting was the vehicle of choice for this year’s push to legalize gambling in Georgia. But a proposed constitutional amendment asking Georgia voters to decide the issue couldn’t muster the two-thirds vote needed to pass the Senate.
Senate supporters went back to the drawing board and passed a bill in committee allowing sports betting to come under the oversight of the Georgia Lottery Commission without the need for a constitutional change. But it, too, was defeated.
In the frenzy of the session’s final day, other legislation that fell by the wayside included a tenants’ bill of rights, a bill targeting antisemitism, and a proposal to overhaul the system the state uses to financially compensate the wrongfully convicted.