School vouchers, election laws, gender-affirming care on agenda as lawmakers race to beat the clock

Georgia State Capitol on mostly sunny day

by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

March 6, 2023

It’s crunch time under the Gold Dome.

After a slow start, lawmakers have shifted gears in the ramp up to a key legislative deadline Monday, when a bill must clear at least one chamber to have the smoothest path to the governor’s desk.

Lawmakers will weigh in on dozens of bills in a marathon day of rapid-fire voting that will likely go late into the night. Many of the measures will sail through with little discussion, but several controversial bills poised for a vote – like a proposed ban on some gender-affirming care – is sure to spark bitter debate.

The Senate’s agenda has been set by the gatekeeping rules committee, which has teed up nearly more than 60 bills for a potential vote. Over in the House, that chamber’s agenda-setting committee will push out piles of bills for lawmakers to vote red or green on throughout the day.

Here’s a rundown on some of the higher-profile bills Georgia lawmakers are expected to settle this Crossover Day. 

Culture clashes

The Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill that would ban doctors from performing some gender-affirming procedures for transgender minors.

Sen. Carden Summers’ Senate Bill 140 seeks to bar surgical and hormone therapy for gender dysphoria, while still allowing puberty blockers.

Transitioning to another gender can be more difficult after puberty, when the body takes on characteristics of the gender assigned at birth. Transgender youth often describe distress at the changes puberty brings.

Summers, a Cordele Republican, framed his bill as a compromise that would allow children experiencing gender dysphoria to effectively hit the pause button on puberty while not undergoing irreversible procedures until they are adults.

Transgender advocates call the bill a politically motivated attack on young trans people. They argue that gender-affirming surgery is rarely ever performed on minors and that puberty-blocking drugs offer no help to transgender teens who have already started puberty, while hormone treatments can. 

A similar bill by Gwinnett Republican Sen. Clint Dixon, which would also ban puberty blockers, is not scheduled for a vote. Neither is a religious freedom bill authored by Acworth Republican Sen. Ed Setzler.

LGBTQ advocates were heartened last week when another Summers bill compared to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation failed in committee.

Lady Luck

When it comes to legally betting money in Georgia, the state lottery is the only game in town.

For decades, members of the state Legislature have tried to change that, but they’ve always come up short.

That losing streak continued last week when the Senate shot down a plan from Statesboro Republican Sen. Billy Hickman that could have led to legalized sports betting and horse racing in Georgia. 

But there’s still time left on the clock, and a true gambler is nothing if not optimistic.

Athens Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert has offered a path to legalized sports betting through an amendment to the state constitution. His bill setting that up is on the schedule Monday.

A constitutional amendment presents a more difficult path to victory – rather than a simple majority in each chamber, it must win two-thirds votes in both and then earn the approval of voters in an election. 

Cowsert may be betting that the absence of horse racing and the fact that the ultimate choice will be in voters’ hands will convince more lawmakers than Hickman was able to.

Another gambling bill penned by Watkinsville Republican Rep. Marcus Wiedower passed a House committee and could get a full vote if House leadership allows it.

Wiedower’s bill is also limited to online sports betting but does not call for a constitutional amendment.

More 2020 election fallout

Republican lawmakers have revived several proposals that grew from the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. 

Senate Bill 221 is the most controversial election bill so far. It advanced through a Senate Ethics Committee after a flurry of amendments and doubts were raised about its legal status. The bill would prohibit counties from providing absentee drop boxes, expands opportunities for dubious mass eligibility challenges, and adds ballot security measures. 

Sen. Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican who sponsored the legislation that cleared the committee hurdle before Monday’s Crossover Day, has said that the bill builds upon the 2021 voting law overhaul by improving ballot security and better ensuring that ineligible voters aren’t still on the voter rolls. 

Senior Reporter Stanley Dunlap has a more complete breakdown here

Hot market, hotter potato

Macon Republican Rep. Dale Washburn’s plan to ease rising home prices by curbing local regulations quickly collided with county leaders. 

His bill would change the way new homes are built and the ability of local governments to regulate everything from the color of a home’s exterior to the amount of vinyl siding to whether a home can be built on a concrete slab.

More specifically, the bill attempts to make homes more affordable for first-time buyers by limiting local government restrictions on architectural and design standards for single-family homes that measure 1,200 to 2,500 square feet and meet the state building code minimum. 

The strongest opposition to House Bill 517 comes from local government officials who do not want to be restricted when it comes to setting design and zoning standards for their communities and who raised concerns about the bill opening up the construction of substandard homes.

Another housing bill sponsored by Washburn has more momentum after clearing a House committee last week. 

That measure would limit a local governments’ ability to issue a moratorium on building new homes to a maximum of 180 days. The measure included exemptions for state of emergency declarations, natural disasters, or when the local government has contracted with a third party to complete a study on public utilities. 

In addition, the bill would allow local governments to waive “impact fees,” which are tied to costs for public infrastructure on residential housing under 2,500 square feet.

Tutelage Tokens

Late last month, Cumming Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal notched a win for the school voucher movement when his bill aimed at extending tax subsidies for private school scholarships to nearly all Georgia students was approved by the Senate Education and Youth Committee.

He’s hoping to chalk a bigger W on Monday when the bill is scheduled for a full Senate vote.

Vouchers are an oft-debated topic under the Gold Dome. They allow parents of public school students to pull their kids out of school in exchange for a share of the money the state would have spent on their education to be used to enroll them in a private school.

Dolezal’s plan would offer $6,000 a year to families of children enrolled in public schools.

Proponents say vouchers help families without a lot of money get their children out of schools that are not meeting their needs. Opponents say such measures only help relatively well-off families and funnel state money to schools that are not accountable to public scrutiny.

If the bill passes and receives Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, Georgia will join a growing number of Republican-led states to offer universal vouchers, including Iowa and Utah, whose governors signed similar bills this year.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.