The Session Wrapped: A Recap of Georgia’s 2021 Legislative Session
Making a citizen’s arrest will now be illegal for most people in Georgia. Student athletes will start making endorsement deals and getting paid for them. Stealing Amazon packages from someone’s porch will become a felony. Your standard state tax deduction will be higher, meaning you’ll probably pay less in taxes. You could stop changing your clock in the Fall and Spring because Georgia may no longer follow daylight saving time changes. Children will now be educated about the dangers of vaping and smoking. Distributing food and water to people waiting in line to vote is now illegal. And you’ll be able to order to-go cocktails from restaurants, even after COVID is over.
Georgia’s 2021 legislative session ended on March 31st. In the 40 short days of the session, legislators passed more than 300 bills that will impact Georgians, including bills that make the changes above. Many of these changes are still unofficial, as the vast majority of these bills await Governor Brian Kemp’s signature—the final step in the process before a bill officially becomes law—and some still require federal action to go into effect.
If you haven’t been following along with the 2021 legislative session, you’re not alone. We’re going to get you up to speed about what you missed and why you should care.
The 40-Day Sprint
Unlike the U.S. Congress, Georgia’s state legislative branch is only in session for 40 days each year — typically from January to March. This year, in those 40 days, elected representatives introduced 1,172 bills covering everything from COVID-19 and healthcare to education and civil rights. Republicans introduced 550 of these bills — almost half of all bills introduced this session. Democrats introduced 370 pieces of legislation. The remaining 252 bills were bipartisan, meaning they have support from at least one Democrat and one Republican.
The legislative process is complex, but there are 6 high-level stages bills pass through or get stuck in:
- Introduced 1st Chamber: The bill was introduced in one of the two houses of the Georgia General Assembly: the House of Representatives or the Senate. During this stage, the bill entered a specific committee that must approve the bill before it can be voted on by the entire chamber. 64.8% of bills died at this stage.
- Passed 1st Chamber: After a bill is approved by its committee, the next step is for it to be called up for a vote. The bill received a majority vote and was passed by the first chamber.
- Passed 2nd Chamber: The bill entered the second chamber and was submitted to another committee. After receiving committee approval and a majority vote, the bill passed the second chamber.
- Failed to Reconcile: Each chamber can make changes to a bill, meaning that there can be two different versions passed by each chamber. If both chambers can’t agree upon a final version, the bill fails to reconcile and will not go to the governor’s desk.
- Awaiting Signature: The bill was passed by both chambers and needs to be signed by the governor before becoming law. If the governor doesn’t sign the bill within 40 days of the last day of the session, the bill automatically becomes law. The governor can also veto the bill.
- Signed Into Law: The bill was signed into law by the Governor and will go into effect on July 1st unless another date was included in the bill.
The Top 5 Issues
Each session, legislators have priorities about what bills they want to pass and what laws they want to influence and change. We classified each bill by its primary issue area to show which issues received the most (and least) attention. This session, the top 5 issues were government, taxes, criminal justice, voting, and healthcare.
Issue #1: Government
Government bills are mainly straightforward procedural bills that do things like issue new city charters, change county boundaries, or change how much certain officials get paid. However, some of these bills were more broadly impactful and much more controversial. For example, SB 142 would have allowed sports betting lottery games in Georgia, including online betting. This bill would have legalized betting on professional or amateur sports for people at least 21 years old. Another example is SB 218, which would have stopped pay for public officials who are suspended because of a felony indictment, including all elected county officials, members of school boards, superintendents, members of the Public Service Commission, district attorneys, and solicitor-generals. Under current law, if a public official is suspended while on trial for a felony, they’re still paid. Neither of these bills passed, but both can be reconsidered in 2022.
Issue #2: Taxes
These are bills that either create new taxes, change existing tax rules, or create tax exemptions. An example is HB 593, which passed and will increase the amount of the standard deduction for state income states, meaning most people will have to pay less in Georgia state taxes. Another example is SB 25, which did not pass but would have changed the Georgia tax credit for all qualified child and dependent care expenses. This tax credit allows taxpayers to write off expenses paid for the care of children or dependents under the age of 13 or who are incapable of self-care if the taxpayer paid the expenses to allow them or their spouse to work or actively look for work. Under current law, Georgia’s qualified child and dependent care expense tax credit is 30% of the federal tax credit. SB 25 would have changed this tax credit to 100% of the federal qualified child and dependent care tax credit.
Issue #3: Criminal Justice
Criminal justice bills are those that change any aspect of the criminal process, such as creating new crimes, decreasing penalties for crimes, or changing the probation process. An example is HB 94, which passed and will make it a felony to possess stolen mail or commit porch piracy. Someone will be guilty of possession of stolen mail if they have at least ten separate pieces of mail addressed to at least three different addresses, and they must know the mail is stolen. Someone is guilty of porch piracy if they take at least one package or article of mail from around another person’s house without permission. Another impactful bill that passed this session is SB 78, which makes it illegal to post revenge porn online — sharing nude and sexual photos or videos of someone without their consent — with the purpose of harassing or causing financial harm. The crime will be a felony, punishable by one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $100,000.
Issue #4: Voting
Voting bills are any bills that modify the voting process, including voter registration, campaign finance, and ballot counting. None of the Democratic-introduced or bipartisan voting bills passed this year, such as HB 113, which would have allowed voters to register and vote during early voting or on the day of a primary or election. A substantial voting bill that passed this session was the Republican-introduced SB 202, which the governor has already signed into law. SB 202 makes a wide range of changes to Georgia’s voting process, including criminalizing distribution of food and drinks to voters waiting in line, preventing polling places from extending their hours on election day unless there was a period of time on election day when voters could not vote there, decreasing precinct sizes if wait times are more than an hour, allowing individuals or outside groups to challenge voters’ right to vote an unlimited number of times, making all ballots public record, preventing organizations from sending out absentee ballot applications to certain individuals, requiring an ID number or copy of an ID when voters request absentee ballots, giving the state government the power to take control of county elections and decide how election rules are implemented, limiting drop boxes to one box per every 100,000 registered voters, requiring constant surveillance of ballot drop boxes, making it a felony to accept and return someone else’s absentee ballot, and and allowing absentee ballots to start being counted as early as the third Monday before election day.
Issue #5: Healthcare
Healthcare bills are those that make changes to private or public medical care or insurance. One key healthcare bill that passed with bipartisan support is HB 128, which prohibits discrimination against disabled people seeking an organ transplant. Healthcare providers will no longer be able to base organ transplant decisions solely on someone’s disability, including giving priority to other transplant recipients. Many healthcare bills did not pass, such as HB 73, which would have limited the maximum price of a 30-day supply of insulin to $50 for Georgians covered by either a private insurance company, Medicaid, or PeachCare for Kids. Currently, insulin costs about $25 to $300 per vial, and 3-6 are usually required for a month’s supply.
The Bottom 3 Issues
While some issues were a priority for the General Assembly, other issues were not. Legislators introduced 83 bills related to policing, civil rights, and guns — three issues that were directly related to some of the most defining events of 2020. However, only 3 bills were passed related to policing, and no bills were passed relating to civil rights or guns.
Issue #1: Policing
Policing bills are any bills that affect how the police operate and do their job. Bills passed dealt with police budgets and citizen arrest. At the start of the session, 39 policing bills were introduced. However, only three were actually passed: two Republican bills and one bipartisan bill. One piece of legislation that passed was HB 286, which bans counties from decreasing their police budget by more than 5% over five years. This places a legal limit on counties being able to defund the police — a popular call for action of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. The bill has exceptions for counties that have a one-time significant decrease in revenue, share police forces with a neighboring county, have been court-ordered to provide substantial new services, or have less than 25 police officers. Another key policing bill that passed is the bipartisan bill HB 479, which limits the powers of citizen arrest. Under HB 479, the only citizens allowed to arrest someone are food service and retail owners, truck weight inspectors, private inspectors, and private security officers. The bill also restricts law enforcement authority to make warrantless arrests outside of their jurisdiction. HB 479 was made in direct response to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was shot by two white men who thought Arbery matched the description of a home burglar. The local district attorney initially declined to charge the assailants, stating they were following citizen arrest.
Issue #2: Civil Rights
These are any bills that focus on giving people equal opportunity and equal protection under the law. 22 civil rights bills were introduced this session, primarily by Democrats. Of those 22 bills, none passed. Failed bills included HB 569, which would have banned the practice of conversion therapy for minors — a type of treatment that attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Issue #3: Guns
These are any bills dealing with carrying or owning a gun. There were 22 gun bills introduced, one of which was bipartisan and the rest of which were almost evenly split between the Republicans and the Democrats. No gun legislation passed this session. A notable bill that did not go forward is HB 218, which would have authorized people licensed to carry weapons in other states to carry in Georgia without being licensed in Georgia. Currently, Georgia only recognizes licenses from other states if that state also recognizes licenses from Georgia.
Three Impactful Bills that Failed
HB 485 (Bipartisan): would have repealed the death penalty in Georgia. All current death sentences would have been changed to a sentence of life in prison without parole. If the death penalty had been repealed, Georgia courts would no longer be allowed to sentence convicted felons to death as punishment for their crimes. Instead, the strictest criminal sentence would have been life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2020, there were 40 men and one woman on Georgia’s death row. HB 485 did not pass this session but can be reconsidered in 2022.
HB 401 (Republican): would have made it illegal for healthcare professionals to perform procedures or provide medication to minors to help them transition. Transitioning is a process where someone alters their appearance or biology to match a certain gender, and it is used by transgender people whose biological sex does not match their gender identity. The bill would have criminalized healthcare professionals performing numerous medical procedures associated with transitioning to any minor, including performing mastectomies, removing non-diseased organs, or prescribing estrogen or testosterone. Healthcare providers who provide these services would have been guilty of a felony and had their medical licenses revoked. Exceptions would have been provided for parents making decisions about their children who are intersex or have a sex development disorder. HB 401 did not pass this session but can be reconsidered in 2022.
SB 137 (Democratic): would have banned the use of private prisons in Georgia. The bill included prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, parole revocation centers, long-term and short-term youth detention centers, boot camps, and probation detention centers. Only government agencies or departments, including the federal government, would have been allowed to operate detention centers in the state. The bill would have gone into effect on January 1, 2021. Currently, Georgia has four for-profit private prisons that are funded by $170 million in tax dollars per year. SB 137 did not pass this session but can be reconsidered in 2022.
The Party Lines
During this session of the Georgia General Assembly, Republicans controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the House, Republicans have 103 seats, while Democrats have 77. In the Senate, Republicans have 34 seats, while Democrats have 22. With a majority in both chambers, it’s significantly easier for the Republicans to pass their legislation and block legislation by Democrats. In comparison, Republicans were able to pass 201 bills, while Democrats were only able to pass 20. Bipartisan bills experienced a similar rate of bill passage as Republican legislation, with 83 of the 252 bipartisan bills passing this session.
This year, Republican priorities, based on the bills they introduced, were the government, voting, taxes, and criminal justice. For Democrats, priorities were the government, criminal justice, education, and healthcare. Republicans were able to pass legislation about taxes and voting, while the Democrats passed a few bills regarding criminal justice and healthcare.
Senators and House Members are responsible for introducing and voting on legislation on behalf of their constituents. However, three legislators did not author or co-sponsor any bills during the 2021 session: Senator Horacena Tate (D-Atlanta), Representative Mickey Stephens (D-Savannah), and Representative Angela Moore (D-Decatur). Angela Moore was sworn into office on March 16, 2021, two weeks before the end of session, after winning a special election to represent the Decatur area. Both Senator Tate and Representative Stephens were first elected to office over ten years ago.
So… what now?
At Branch, our whole mission is to empower as many people as possible to create a better society through the impactful and often overlooked parts of government. No one has time to be informed about every bill, candidate, or election that takes place in Georgia, but, every day, we work hard to make it as easy as possible to make a local impact with the time you do have.
Elections for members of the House and Senate are held every two years, with the next election being in November 2022. Even before that, most cities in Georgia have their local elections in November 2021, including Atlanta’s elections for mayor and city council.
You can advance sign up for our coverage for Georgia’s 2021 election cycle by visiting www.branch.vote/2021.
The Session Wrapped is created by Branch Politics, a nonpartisan startup located in Atlanta, Georgia. Branch’s mission is to empower as many people as possible to create a better society. You can learn more at www.branch.vote.
This blog post was created from the The 2021 Georgia General Assembly Legislative Session Report, by Branch Politics. You can download the full report here.