2021 State Legislative Session

How did Athens’ state representatives vote?

2021 Georgia Legislative Session

Legend

Row color
Red rows indicate a bill sponsored by Republicans only.
Purple rows indicate a bill with sponsors from both parties.

Vote color
• Votes (yes or no) colored red indicate that most people who voted that way were Republicans, with few or no Democrats voting with them.
• Votes colored blue indicate that most people who voted that way were Democrats, with few or no Republicans voting with them.
• Votes colored purple indicate that many members from both parties voted that way.

Nerd’s Take
Thumbs up means APN supports the bill.
Thumbs down means APN opposes the bill.

Athens’ legislative delegation

State House District 117 – Houston Gaines (R)
State House District 118 – Spencer Frye (D)
State House District 119 – Marcus Wiedower (R)
State Senate District 46 – Bill Cowsert (R)
State Senate District 47 – Frank Ginn (R)

A closer look: 2021 legislation in Georgia

This bill would shield businesses from liability if a worker or customer becomes infected with COVID-19 during business hours.

Employers gain this legal protection even if they fail to provide masks or other protective equipment to employees or under any other set of circumstances except “gross negligence” or “intentional infliction of harm” on their part. Athens’ own Senator Bill Cowsert tried to pass an amendment stripping even that meager amount of protection from HB 112, but his motion failed. He later voted with Democrats against the bill, presumably because it did not protect businesses strongly enough in his opinion.

🡆 HB 112 was passed by both houses and heads to the Governor’s desk.

Sponsored by Athens’ own Representative Houston Gaines, this bill would give three weeks of paid leave to all state employees, including teachers, following birth, adoption or fostering of a child.

🡆 HB 146 was passed by both houses and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

This bill would prohibit cities and municipalities in Georgia from limiting consumer use of any utility based solely on the type of energy powering it.

According to Commissioner Carol Myers, this bill is being heavily promoted across the country by the American Gas Association to stop cities from limiting the use of natural gas. Although no such limitation is currently being considered in Athens, the bill would stop progressive cities like ours from meeting our CO₂ emissions targets in the future.

🡆 HB 150 was passed by both houses and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

The idea behind this bill, also sponsored by Houston Gaines, was to stop communities from reducing police funding by more than five percent in a given year, except during recessions or other times when overall revenues decline by more than five percent. However, it was greatly weakened in committee and no longer prevents reducing budgets.

While the bill may succeed at pleasing Gaines’ Republican base, it wouldn’t actually stop Athens from implementing Commissioners Mariah Parker and Tim Denson’s 50/10 Plan to reallocate police funding to social workers. Police funding could still be cut significantly even if Governor Brian Kemp signs HB 286 into law. Cutting more than 5% a year would simply require a public hearing.

🡆 HB 286 was passed by both houses and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

This bill would apply the statewide $5 hotel / motel fee to all Airbnb and VRBO short-term rentals. Since the bill would require these establishments to register for taxes, it would also streamline the tax-collection process for local governments as well. This means short-term rentals will also soon have to pay Athens’ 7% tax on all hotel stays.

That’s great news for the ACC government, which had already been moving to create a registry of short-term rentals in Athens to facilitate tax collection on these entities. If the bill becomes law, the state will end up doing much of this work for them.

🡆 HB 317 was passed by both houses and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

Sparked by the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, this bill would end the concept of “citizen’s arrest” in Georgia. Citizens’ arrests have a white supremacist history in this state and have been used to justify hundreds of lynchings of Black residents. They were first legalized in Georgia during the Civil War to allow white residents to capture escaped slaves.

If signed by the Governor, this racist practice will finally come to an end. However, it will still allow security guards and off-duty officers to detain people they suspect of committing a crime.

🡆 HB 479 was passed by both houses and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

This bill expands Georgia’s school voucher program by adding thousands of new conditions to the definition of “special needs,” thereby allowing many more children to qualify.

School vouchers are designed to help families afford private schooling by letting them take the money their child was previously spending in the public system system to help them afford private tuition. However, vouchers generally don’t cover all the costs of private tuition costs and are not much use for low-income families. These funds are usually taken by already well-off families who divert them away from public schooling, draining these schools of needed resources.

🡆 SB 47 was passed by both houses and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

This bill would have ended absentee voting in Georgia without a valid reason, such as being out-of-town during the election or over the age of 65. It failed to pass, but not before both state Senators representing Athens voted for it.

SB 71 passed the Senate but died in the House.

According to the Georgia Justice Project, an advocacy group which supports the bill, SB 105 “provides a unified process by which individuals that have served at least three years on probation and have successfully met a list of eligibility criteria can seek early termination of their probation sentence.”

🡆 SB 105 was passed by both houses and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

Dubbed the “Safe Communities Act,” SB 171 “encourages the dehumanization, maiming, and murder of protesters, among a variety of other concerning provisions,” according to Christopher Bruce, the political director of the Georgia ACLU.

The bill would greatly expand the definition of “unlawful assembly” and increase the penalties for participating in such an assembly. For example, anyone caught assembling unlawfully would be barred from employment by any state or local government in Georgia.

It would make obstructing a highway during a protest a felony offense, and helps defend drivers who strike or even kill protesters with their vehicles. Furthermore, protest organizers could find themselves charged with racketeering and those who deface monuments could be charged with a felony under this bill.

The bill also puts pressure on local governments to ban unpermitted assemblies and makes the permitting process extremely onerous. (By the way, Athens does not currently require or even offer protest permits. However, the police appreciate being notified of any large or potentially large assembly ahead of time and this is highly recommended of protest organizers.)

Fortunately, this authoritarian, un-American and unconstitutional bill did not receive a vote, despite being sponsored by fifteen Republican legislators.

SB 171 did not receive a vote.

Finally, we’ve come to the most controversial bill passed this session. SB 202 has been roundly condemned as voter suppression and even as “Jim Crow 2.0.” President Joe Biden has spoken out against the bill, as have countless voting rights organizations across the country.

However, SB 202 does have some good provisions hidden inside its 98 pages. Of interest to Athens, Jerry NeSmith’s law was included in the final version, providing for a special election upon the death and subsequent victory of a candidate for public office. Residents of commission district 6 advocated for this change after their commissioner, Jerry NeSmith, suddenly died just days before his election last year. Due to the previous law, all votes for the deceased candidate were voided, allowing for current Commissioner Jesse Houle to win without a special election (although one was eventually held anyway, which Houle won).

If, God forbid, this ever happens again, a special election is assured.

On the other hand, SB 2020 has many provisions that critics say threaten voting rights in Georgia. This bill:

  • Bans “line warming,” or the act of providing for the human needs of voters while waiting in a long line (such as bringing them snacks or even a drink of water).
  • Shortens the window when you can request an absentee ballot.
  • Prevents local governments from automatically sending out absentee ballot request forms.
  • Restricts the number and availability of ballot drop boxes.
  • Requires polling places to take action to shorten voting lines, but provides no additional funding to allow that to happen.
  • Nullifies the votes of out-of-precinct voters unless their provisional ballots were cast at or after 5 pm on election day.
  • Removes the Secretary of State as the chair of the State Elections Board, replacing him with an unelected political appointee.

Perhaps the bill’s most concerning provision is that SB 202 allows the state legislature to indirectly take over local elections boards, suspending them for at least nine months. This can be done after a performance review through the State Elections Board, a body they now control through the chair, whom they have will appointed. An entire local Board of Elections could be replaced with one person, another political appointee, who would have sole power to administer the vote counting process.

This bill could have far-reaching consequences for the future of democracy in Georgia. However, its impact may be reduced somewhat by the tremendous and growing backlash. Additionally, at least three lawsuits have been filed against it, so it’s possible the courts could strike down some of the bill’s more egregious aspects.

Governor Brian Kemp wasted no time signing this bill into law, which he did behind closed doors surrounded by white male legislators as Representative Park Cannon, a Black woman, was arrested for daring to knock on his door. Cannon is now facing up to eight years in prison for “obstruction.”

SB 202 was signed into law by the Governor.

Missed opportunities

Medicaid Expansion

The Georgia legislature has failed to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act for yet another year. Legislators, if they reference this failure at all, give the excuse that so doing would negatively impact the state’s budget, even though the cost in many states has been much lower than expected and in some has even been a net positive. Furthermore, the Biden administration has been providing additional incentives for holdout states to expand Medicaid.

The percentage of people in Georgia without health insurance has been rising and Georgia’s uninsured rate ranked third worst in the nation in 2019. What are we waiting for?

Low-Income Property Tax Freeze

Last year, Commissioner Tim Denson asked the state legislature to provide low-income Athenians with some tax relief by allowing a low-income property tax freeze. This year, our local legislative delegation started to act on this request through HB 797. The bill even passed the house, with Gaines and Wiedower voting yes and Frye voting no.

You might be asking yourself, why did Representative Frye vote no?

There was a catch — the bill also greatly increased Athens’ homestead exemption and would have drained the local government of badly-needed revenue. The bill was also opposed by Mayor Kelly Girtz, whose dissent may have been instrumental in stopping the measure in the Senate. Gaines and Wiedower could have removed the offending provision and allowed a vote solely on the tax freeze itself, but they declined.

Well, there’s always next year.

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