The Georgia legislature passes laws on mental health, guns, schools and more

This year is the time for Georgia lawmakers to get their bills across the finish line before the gavel falls for the final time to end the 2022 legislative session.

House and Senate lawmakers adjourned Sine Die around midnight April 4 after reviewing hundreds of bills over the past three months. A grueling plenary and committee schedule has kept lawmakers on their toes over the last 40 days of the legislature. There were a few bright spots in between – like the opportunity to pose for photos with both the Major League Baseball World Series and College Football National Championship trophies.

By late evening, important and often controversial pieces of legislation had not surfaced for debate. Chambers bounced back and forth about the scope of the proposed tax cut, was sent to consult on how to address the state’s medical marijuana lockdown, and still hadn’t committed to next year’s $30 billion budget. Lawmakers finally found common ground for tax cuts and the state’s spending plan, among other important issues.

Gov. Brian Kemp appeared in both chambers around 8 p.m. and had a message for lawmakers: Your work for the night is not over. The Republican pushed for legislation banning transgender athletes from college sports and restricting discussions of race in classrooms. A last-minute change in law gave the Georgia High School Athletic Association the power to create guidelines for transgender girls’ participation in athletics.

Not everything made the final hammer before lawmakers headed to their hometowns across the state for a well-deserved offseason. To the dismay of supporters, lawmakers couldn’t agree on a solution to the medical marijuana licensing problems. A constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting in Georgia also failed. A controversial bill that would ban the mailing of pro-abortion drugs without a face-to-face consultation with a medical provider also failed to pass a final vote.

Here are the bills headed to the governor’s desk — or already have his signature.

Mental health

The legislature, hailed as the most significant piece of legislation passed this session, unanimously passed House Bill 1013, a sweeping mental health reform package aimed at creating equality and insurance coverage.

The Mental Health Parity Act was championed by House Speaker David Ralston, who said mental health treatment in Georgia was far from inadequate. The final bill requires insurance providers to cover mental health diagnosis on par with physical conditions. In addition, the number of psychiatric professionals nationwide is to be increased.

“Hope won today,” Ralston said two weeks ago after the final vote in the House of Representatives. “Countless Georgians will know that we have heard their desperation and frustration.”

In a show of support, Kemp, flanked by legislative leaders, signed the law into law during a grand ceremony on Sine Die.

Along with HB 1013, lawmakers unanimously passed Senate Bill 403, which creates a statewide framework for mental health professionals to act as co-responders with law enforcement officials on crisis calls.

Concealed carry permits

Among Kemp’s legislative priorities was a measure that would allow Georgians to carry a concealed handgun in public without first obtaining a gun-carrying license. SB 319, known as Permissionless or “Constitutional” Carry, allows people who are already legally capable of owning a firearm to carry their gun in public without first going through the licensing process.

Proponents said the bill would simply do away with the extra paperwork for gun owners in Georgia. But critics said it eliminated one of the few background checks Georgia has on the books and would let dangerous criminals slip through the cracks at a time when gun violence is at a height. An analysis conducted by GPB News revealed that nearly all counties in Georgia have an approval rating of over 90% for concealed carry applications.

transgender athletes

In a last-minute change, Georgia lawmakers passed a weaker version of an earlier measure aimed at banning transgender athletes from women’s sports. A new language added to HB 1084 addressing “divisive concepts” taught in schools opens the door for the Georgia High School Association to develop policies that would ban transgender women from public high school participate in athletics.

House lawmakers opposed Senate legislation that originally prohibited schools from competing with other schools that allow transgender women to attend. House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said lawmakers have put the decision in the hands of Georgia High School Association leadership.

“We’re not targeting them because it will be a decision of the GHSA,” he said after the House of Representatives adjourned. “I’ll let them know I don’t want them targeted.”

Critical Race Theory

Education policy was at the heart of the bitter partisan struggles, which came into their own in this session. Republican lawmakers have launched a series of efforts to ban “critical race theory” from K-12 classrooms — though it’s not taught in any of those Georgia schools.

The legislature passed HB 1084, which bans a list of “divisive concepts” from classroom discussions, which the GOP legislature defines as a variety of ideas related to race. Educators condemned the measure as an “attack” on teachers who have faced extreme hardship during the pandemic.

Lawmakers also sought to increase parental oversight over what their students are being taught in their classroom. HB 1178 codifies a procedure for parents to request and review week-long lesson plans from their child’s teacher – a procedure that educators have testified is already in place in school districts. Under the bill, parents have the right to review educational materials and the right to withdraw their child from all sex education classes. Educators testified that parents already have access to curricula, but teachers often have to make changes based on student needs.

election changes

Legislators this year agreed to only a minor change to the election process following the passage of SB 202, a sweeping electoral law that will come under intense scrutiny in 2021.

House lawmakers originally introduced a 39-page bill that included various provisions that changed which state agencies could investigate allegations of voter fraud, allowed public access to inspect ballots, and added security procedures that poll officials described as cumbersome and unnecessary. But the final election amendment that was passed gave the Georgia Bureau of Investigation only original jurisdiction to investigate election law violations.

Kemp’s COVID bills

Kemp included two pieces of legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic in his barrage of legislative priorities for the session.

The Unmask Georgia Students Act, which has been passed and signed into law, allows parents to opt their child out of the school district’s mask policy, making classroom mask requirements essentially unenforceable. Most Georgia schools have already eliminated the mask requirement as infection rates have declined. The law takes effect immediately and will apply until June 2027. The governor, in cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services, has the power to overrule it in the event of public health emergencies.

Lawmakers also backed a measure banning so-called “vaccination passports.” The bill would prohibit state agencies, local governments or schools from requiring someone to have a COVID-19 vaccination. The provision does not apply to hospitals or medical facilities and expires in June 2023.

end of the street

For some high-profile lawmakers, it was their last session under the Gold Dome.

Lt. gov. Geoff Duncan is not seeking re-election after one term. The Republican became an unlikely and prominent critic of former President Donald Trump and the party’s direction after the 2020 election.

During his farewell address, Duncan continued to urge lawmakers to put “politics above politics.” He described how his family endured the relentless attacks on him from the former president and his supporters. “I believe more than ever that doing the right thing will never be the wrong thing,” he said.

On the final day, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle honored the Dean of the House of Representatives, Columbus Rep. Calvin Smyre, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. The 74-year-old Democrat has been hailed as an experienced negotiator and dedicated public official who was instrumental in passing historic legislation — including last session’s hate crimes bill.

“I’ve worn this badge as a badge of honor for 48 years,” Smyre said. “I’ve held many, many positions of leadership and titles over the years, but being named Dean of this House, while the least of powers, is the one I admire most.”

This story comes to Flagpole through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom serving the state of Georgia.