Controversial bill banning some care for transgender youths clears General Assembly

Sen. Kim Jackson, D-Stone Mountain, speaks against controversial SB 140. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – The Republican-controlled state Senate gave final passage Tuesday to a bill that will ban transgender youths in Georgia from receiving hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgery.  

Senate Bill 140 passed on a party line 31-21 vote and now moves to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature. 

The controversial bill drew fierce criticism from legislative Democrats, parents of transgender youth, and major medical societies as it went through the legislative committee process.

Hospitals could lose their permits and doctors their licenses for providing such hormone therapy or gender-affirming care. Last week, a House committee amended the bill to remove immunity from civil and criminal liability for doctors who provide such services. 

The bill does allow transgender youths to take puberty blockers. It also provides exceptions for youth with certain specified medical conditions who need hormone replacement therapy and certain surgeries.

“Senate Bill 140 is a very challenging bill. It has been something that has been heavy on the hearts for everyone in this chamber,” said Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, a medical doctor who cosponsored the bill. “I think we have struck a good balance here.”  

“We’re doing the right thing by … truly protecting the lives of children by not offering the life-altering drugs and, of course, the surgeries that are completely irreversible,” added Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, the bill’s chief sponsor. 

Democrats argued the bill will harm transgender youth and interfere with parents’ rights and doctors’ judgement.  

“Our children are at risk when they are not given the hormone therapy they need to properly manage their gender dysphoria,” said Sen. Kim Jackson, R-Stone Mountain. 

Gender dysphoria is a recognized medical condition that results in mental distress because of a mismatch between the sex a person was born with and their gender identity, the person’s own sense of their gender. The condition is listed in a standard psychiatric reference, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  

“When the overwhelming [majority of] medical professionals have come in and said ‘this does not help children, this harms children, this increases their likelihood of committing suicide,’ and yet you continue to push forward, I’m clear it’s no longer about children anymore, it’s about something different than that.” Jackson added. “This really is about us bullying children in order to score political points.”  

Democrats also criticized Republicans for interfering with parents’ rights while strongly supporting parents’ rights on other measures, including the Parents’ of Rights education bill the General Assembly passed last year.

“Today, we are debating the rights of parents to protect their children’s mental health and their physical wellness,” said Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson. 

“Our chamber has fought restrictions on freedom of medical choice throughout the pandemic … but we continue to take away the freedom of medical professionals and citizens to make choices about their health. I’m getting whiplash, which one do you want? Parental rights or not?”  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

State House approves bill requiring mandatory minimum sentences for gang recruitment

Rep. Soo Hong, R-Lawrenceville, sponsored an anti-gang-recruitment bill in the state House. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA –  The Georgia House of Representatives passed legislation Monday imposing mandatory minimum prison terms for gang recruitment.

The bill, which originated in the state Senate, would require judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years on those convicted of recruiting gang members. It also would require tougher penalties for those who recruit someone under age 17 or someone with a disability to a gang, requiring at least a 10-year sentence.   

 Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has made cracking down on gangs an important part of his legislative agenda this year. The bill is one of a number of measures aimed at that goal.  

“This sends a strong message: If you come into our state and are recruiting our children, then we will have severe punishment for you,” said Rep. Soo Hong, R-Lawrenceville, one of the governor’s floor leaders and the sponsor of the bill in the House.  

The bill would also require judges to look at the history of people accused of serious crimes to see if they have previously jumped bail or failed to appear in court before allowing the accused an “unsecured judicial release.”  

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said that gang members in his district have started moving their operations across the border to South Carolina because of Georgia’s already-stiff gang penalties.  

“I’m here to tell you from my own community: This stuff will and does work,” Fleming said.  

However, Democrats opposed the measure, arguing that mandatory minimum sentences will not solve Georgia’s gang problems.  

“This bill fails to implement evidence-based strategies actually proven to prevent children from being recruited into gangs and making us safer,” said Rep. Tanya Miller, D-Atlanta. “This bill will move our state backwards solely for the purpose of appearing to be tough on crime.”  

Miller, a former prosecutor, also argued that the bill would violate the doctrine of separation of powers because it would limit judges’ flexibility in sentencing.  

Other Democrats argued the bill would increase costs to taxpayers and undermine the legacy of former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who oversaw landmark criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the number of people incarcerated in Georgia.  

“Mandatory minimums … fail to deter crime,” said Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville. “They disproportionately harm people of color and fail to promote public safety.” 

The House passed the bill 99-74, primarily along party lines. Because the House amended the bill in committee, it now heads back to the Senate.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Jones hoping sports betting, school vouchers succeed in session’s final stretch

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones presides over the state Senate (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – With less than two weeks remaining in this year’s General Assembly session, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones has morphed from a lighting-rod political figure to a de facto life coach for anxious lawmakers.

“Everything’s gonna be alright” is the advice Republican Jones is handing out as the legislative session hits the final stretch.  

As lieutenant governor, Jones presides over the state Senate, wielding his heavy gavel from the dais overlooking the chamber where he spent a decade as a senator representing Jackson and central Georgia.   

“I don’t think there’s one piece of legislation out there that the state of the Republic depends on — other than the budget,” the new lieutenant governor said of his approach to the frenetic final days of the session.  

Speaking of the budget, Jones is pleased about across-the-board $2,000 pay raises for state employees as well a property tax rebate drawn from Georgia’s historic budget surplus.  

And he’s applying his equanimous approach to a sports betting measure making its way through the legislature.  

It’s a proposal Jones supports personally but, even if it doesn’t pass, “the following day will still come,” he said.  

Sports betting — after appearing to have died prior to the all-important “Crossover Day” deadline earlier this month– may have gained new life this week when it was tacked onto an unrelated bill about soap box derbies.   

Jones said he thought it was wise for the legislature to consider sports betting apart from other gambling measures.

“History has shown that when you either put sports betting and casinos or sports betting and horse racing together, they usually don’t go anywhere,” he said.

“I had told people in the [Republican] caucus who were interested in sports betting that it would get a fair look, and so we’re gonna see how it does by itself.”

Jones contends that sports betting proceeds could help increase state revenues for the HOPE scholarship and help pay for expanded offerings such as scholarships for technical schools and early childhood learning.  

“I think you’re going to need to pick up additional revenue streams [for those programs], and this one is legal in 36 other states,” he said. 

Jones also would like to see a school vouchers measure pass. The bill would provide Georgia students in low-performing schools with $6,000 scholarships to pay for private school or certain other educational costs.  

“If we can get final passage, that will be a big win for us,” Jones said. 

Legislative Democrats have criticized the bill for diverting money from the public school system and noted that the scholarship amount is insufficient to cover the full cost of private-school tuition.  

“Six thousand dollars could be the difference between closing the gap for those families that would like to have another option,” Jones said in response to that concern. “I think it’s a good first step.”  

A vouchers bill passed by the Senate is slated to be taken up by a House committee. If approved, it could be sent to the full House for a floor vote.  

“I’ve seen school voucher bills fail in the Senate. I’ve seen them fail in the House, and I’ve seen them pass both chambers,” Jones said. “But there’s never been a time when they were successful in passing both chambers, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”  

Jones is also optimistic about prospects for this year’s mental health bill.

After the bill breezed through the state House of Representatives, Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, has announced that the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will consider a modified version of the bill in a case of inter-chamber wrangling. 

“There’s a lot of subject matter there to tackle, a lot of moving parts,” Jones said. “We’re trying to get to a place where we’ll have something both chambers can agree on.”

Far more controversial is a bill that would prohibit transgender youths in Georgia from receiving either hormone-replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgery even if their parents and doctors approve.  

­­­“I don’t think we need to make it OK for something as drastic as trying to either through medication or surgical procedures …. do permanent changes to a child that could have significant long-term effects in a negative way,” Jones said.

The lieutenant governor said he is not concerned the controversial measure could damage Georgia’s reputation with large businesses.  

“I haven’t heard from the business community at all on this,” he said. “There will be things we do that the business community doesn’t like … but in most cases, it’s not the majority.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

State retirement fund managers confident of little impact from bank failures

ATLANTA – Georgia’s Teachers Retirement System (TRS) lost about $33 million when two large banks – Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank – failed earlier this month. 

TRS lost $18 million from the SVB failure and $13 million from the Signature Bank failure, TRS Executive Director Buster Evans said Thursday.

But the loss is just a sliver of a fraction of the TRS’ $88 billion in total assets – 0.04% — and is not expected to impact the overall health of the fund or retired employees’ benefits. 

“The impact would be pretty negligible,” Evans said. “Our portfolio is very diverse and we are not dependent on any one industry for performance. Year-to-date, our fund is up.” 

The Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia (ERSGA) also took a relatively small loss of $7.1 million from the two bank failures, Executive Director Jim Potvin told Capitol Beat. As at TRS, the loss represents just 0.04% of the ERGSA’s total assets of $17.7 billion. 

The TRS administers the fund from which the pensions of teachers and many University System of Georgia employees are paid retirement benefits. ERGSA administers a number of retirement plans for state employees, including retired judges and state legislators. 

Both Potvin and Evans said they are confident their funds will thrive despite current market volatility. 

“This occurrence in no way has an impact on either our retirees or active members in their current and future retirement benefits,” Evans said. 

“One of the key features of a defined benefit plan [like ERSGA] … is that sort of insulation from market events,” Potvin added.

Both Potvin and Evans said they are uncertain about whether they will benefit from any restitution plans the federal government develops. 

“Not counting on any of that,” Potvin said. “If we get anything later, it’ll be a nice little bonus.”

As in Georgia, other states’ retirement systems are facing losses from the two banks’ failures. 

“It’s important for everybody to realize TRS didn’t do anything wrong investing in [Silicon Valley Bank]. It was the 16th largest bank in the country,” said Anthony Randazzo, executive director of the Equable Institute, a bipartisan nonprofit focused on retirement plan sustainability and accountability.  “As part of the S&P 500, it was a totally reasonable bet.” 

Georgia teachers also approve of TRS’ overall performance. 

“TRS has a very solid investment policy,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “Our educators and retirees are very happy with TRS.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation. 

State Senate committee expands bill banning lengthy housing moratoriums 

A state Senate committee widened the scope of a bill sponsored by Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, that would ban lengthy local moratoriums on the building of housing.

ATLANTA – A state Senate committee Thursday widened the scope of a bill that would prohibit local governments from imposing moratoriums on the building of housing for longer than 180 days.  

As passed by the state House earlier this month, the bill only barred such local government moratoriums on single-family housing. On Thursday, the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved an amendment broadening the bill to include all housing.  

Sponsored by Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, the bill also would prohibit local governments from continually renewing moratoriums and instead require a 180-day break between such moratoriums. 

The bill provides some exceptions to the bar on lengthy moratoriums, such as in the case of natural disasters or other emergencies.  

The bill would also let local governments extend moratoriums if they need more than 180 days to allow for the completion of studies on topics such as land use or infrastructure, whether those studies are completed in house or by third-party contractors.

Local governments would be allowed to waive impact fees for housing that is smaller than 2,500 square-feet in order to incentivize construction. Local governments sometimes impose impact fees to cover the infrastructure costs of new housing developments.  

The bill has drawn the support of a newly formed housing coalition made up of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Home Builders Association of Georgia, the Georgia Association of Realtors and Habitat for Humanity.  

“We think it’s a small, modest step in the right direction,” said Austin Hackney of the Home Builders Association of Georgia. “Unfortunately, some local governments are using those development moratoriums to put a hard stop on new housing, in their local area, in a blanket manner.”  

The bill now moves to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full Senate.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.