State Senate passes controversial religious freedom bill

State Sen. Ed Setzler

ATLANTA – The state Senate’s Republican majority passed a religious freedom bill Thursday, resurrecting an issue that roiled the General Assembly eight years ago.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which passed 33-19 along party lines, the state and local governments would not be permitted to “substantially burden” an individual’s free exercise of religion unless the government could demonstrate it had a “compelling governmental interest” in doing so and that it was using the “least restrictive means” of intrusion.

Senate Bill 180 is aimed at protecting religious minorities from government intrusion through a “balancing test,” Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, the bill’s chief sponsor, said on the Senate floor shortly before Thursday’s vote.

“It simply provides a tool to weigh the legitimate interests government has against people’s religious rights,” Setzler said. “We’re not trying to take anything from anybody.”

But the bill’s Democratic opponents said the measure could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ Georgians under the guise of religious freedom.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said passing the bill could hurt the state economically.

“We are telling LGBTQ Georgians and their families to leave our state and take their dollars elsewhere,” Butler said.

The General Assembly passed a RFRA bill in 2016 over objections from business organizations worried by threats from organizers of conventions and sporting events to boycott Georgia if the legislation became law.

But then-Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the measure after a storm of protest from civil rights groups that it threatened the rights of the state’s LGBTQ community.

Setzler said his bill is similar to a bipartisan federal RFRA law Congress passed back in 1993, a far different version than the legislation Deal vetoed.

Georgia lawmakers need to act because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the protections the federal law provided extended only to intrusions by the federal government, not by states or local governments, Setzler said.

The legislation now heads to the Georgia House of Representatives.

Georgia House targets illegal immigrants after Athens murder

State Rep. Houston Gaines

ATLANTA – Legislation requiring local law enforcement agencies to comply with a 2006 state law aimed at illegal immigration cleared the Republican-controlled Georgia House Thursday.

House Bill 1105, which passed 97-74 primarily along party lines, comes on the heels of last week’s murder of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, on the University of Georgia campus in Athens. A 26-year-old Venezuelan man allegedly in the country illegally has been charged with the crime.

The bill requires local sheriffs and jailers to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Those that fail to determine the nationality of suspects being held in local jails and notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when they have a suspected illegal immigrant in custody would be subject to the withholding of state funds and state-authorized federal funds.

“Georgia law already prohibits sanctuary cities,” state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, told his House colleagues before Thursday’s vote. “House Bill 1105 will make sure sanctuary policies don’t get rooted in our local governments.”

“We have the greatest border crisis in our nation’s history,” added Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, the bill’s chief sponsor. “Millions are entering our country illegally. We don’t know who they are.”

But Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta, said the legislation would force local law enforcement agencies to focus their efforts on ferreting out illegal immigrants instead of allowing them to concentrate on those committing violent crimes regardless of their nationality.

“It’s stepping on the hands of law enforcement (agencies) who are trying to deal with high crime,” she said.

Other opponents argued the legislation would lead to racial profiling of the sort that would discourage law-abiding citizens with brown skin or foreign accents from coming forward to report criminal activity,

“Fewer people scared of being suspected of anything are going to ‘see something, say something,’ ” said Rep. Marvin Lim, D-Norcross.

The bill now moves to the Georgia Senate.

Legislation limiting film tax credit clears Georgia House

ATLANTA – The state House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would put new restrictions on Georgia’s generous film tax credit.

House Bill 1180, which passed 131-34, would require film production companies to meet at least four of 10 criteria to qualify for an additional 10% income tax credit on top of the 20% base credit the General Assembly enacted in 2008.

TV and film producers would have to spend at least $500,000 on a single production to qualify for the credit. The bill also would limit the total amount of sales or transfers of credits within a calendar year to 2.5% of the governor’s revenue estimate for that year.

In 2007, the year before lawmakers adopted the film tax credit, the film industry generated just $300 million in direct economic impact, a number that had grown to $4 billion by last year.

However, the credit also costs Georgia taxpayers about $1 billion a year in lost tax revenue, more than any of the state’s other tax incentives by far.

“This bill seeks to make this program sustainable,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s going to make sure the taxpayers of Georgia get the best value for their bucks.”

But Rep. Long Tran, D-Dunwoody, who works in the film industry, said the proposed restrictions on the tax credit would hurt an industry that is paying huge dividends in Georgia.

“We have grown into a competitive industry, third in the world, because we do not have a cap,” he said. “This will stagnate our industry.”

Rep. Derrick Jackson, D-Tyrone, said passing the measure would have ramifications far beyond just the film industry.

“This bill sends the wrong message to all businesses that Georgia’s commitments are subject to change,” he said.

But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, said the bill balances the interests of filmmakers and taxpayers.

“This is a very measured and efficient approach,” he said.

House Bill 1180 now moves to the state Senate.

Kemp signs midyear budget

Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp signed a record $37.9 billion fiscal 2024 midyear budget Thursday that includes $5.5 billion in new spending.

“This is a very, very good budget,” House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, said during a signing ceremony at the state Capitol. “It reflects the shared priorities of both (legislative) chambers.”

The midyear budget, which covers state spending through June 30, includes a $1.5 billion infusion of funding for transportation improvements, $250 million for local water and sewer projects, $102.5 million to account for public school enrollment growth, $100 million for rural economic development projects, almost $70 million in additional funding for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, and $50 million to expand Georgia’s rural workforce housing program.

“When you add everything in this document up, it demonstrates you can make smart investments when you budget wisely,” Kemp said shortly before signing the midyear budget.

The spending plan allocates $2 billion of an unprecedented $16 billion budget surplus toward the new spending, a far cry from the days of the Great Recession, when Georgia’s “rainy-day” fund was severely depleted.

“It is probably harder with a surplus than any other time,” said Lt. Gov. Burt Jones. “Everybody has special projects.”

With so much extra money on hand, the midyear budget for the first time in memory pays for major capital projects with cash instead of bond financing. It allocates $436 million for a new state prison in Washington County, $178 million for a new dental school at Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong campus in Savannah, and $50 million for a new medical school at the University of Georgia in Athens.

The General Assembly also made an 11th-hour allocation of $392 million to fund major renovations at the state Capitol complex both to improve security and enhance public access. Another $300 million will go for $1,000 one-time pay supplements for Georgia’s public school teachers and state and university system employees.

With the midyear budget now in the rearview mirror, lawmakers next will tackle Kemp’s $36.1 billion fiscal 2025 budget plan.

Murder of nursing student prompts crackdown on illegal immigrants

State Rep. Jesse Petrea

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers are expected to pass legislation this week targeting illegal immigration following the arrest of a Venezuelan man in the U.S. illegally for the murder of an Augusta University nursing student in Athens.

A law aimed at “sanctuary cities” – where law enforcement authorities do not seek to arrest and prosecute illegal immigrants – has been on the books in Georgia since 2006.

House Bill 1105, which cleared the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee late Tuesday, seeks to ensure local law enforcement agencies enforce the 18-year-old law, said state Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, the bill’s chief sponsor.

“Unfortunately, some municipalities and counties have been able to circumvent the funding restrictions we have in place today,” he said.

Committee Chairman J Collins, R-Villa Rica, said many of House 1105’s provisions have been before the General Assembly since last year.

“We’re always very careful not to just tee up reactionary legislation,” he said. “This committee has been working on this issue for quite some time.”

But cracking down on illegal immigration took on a sense of urgency after Jose Ibarra, 26, was arrested and charged in last Friday’s murder of Laken Riley, whose body was found by a lake near the intramural fields on the University of Georgia campus.

House Bill 1105 contains new language added since last week’s killing strengthening the existing law, including a provision to “require” rather than simply “encourage” local law enforcement officials to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Those agencies that fail to determine the nationality of suspects being held in local jails and notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when they have an illegal immigrant in custody would be subject to the withholding of state funds and state-authorized federal funds.

“That is the job of every sheriff in this state today,” Petrea said. “Maybe half of our sheriffs are following that law.”

The committee approved the bill on Tuesday. It’s expected to reach the House floor on Thursday, Crossover Day in the General Assembly, the deadline for legislation to clear either the House or Senate to remain alive for the 2024 session.