In 2021 the Georgia General Assembly faced the uphill challenge of legislating during a pandemic. Limits on public access to the Capitol meant transparency was at an all time low, and this obstruction found its way into all levels of lawmaking in 2021. Early morning committee meetings, last minute bill changes, rushed hearings, and ultimately the Governor’s signing of bills in secret, all contributed to the sense that Democrats, and the people they represent, were not welcome to participate.
Despite these challenges, there was incremental progress in all the focus areas for the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus: Education, Environment, Equity, and Economy. As is often the case with the minority party’s agenda, this progress was measured and at times offset by the GOP’s insistence on taking Georgia backwards in these critical areas.
Voting rights were the dominant theme of the 2021 session, with more than 60 bills filed that sought to impact the way Georgians vote in large and small ways. Pushback from Democrats and advocacy groups, as well as a limited appetite for obvious suppression among GOP leadership, led to some of the most drastic proposals being cut. Bans on Sunday voting, elimination of no-excuse absentee voting, and harsh limits on voting hours were all removed from bills. However, the omnibus voting bill which did ultimately pass (SB202) included several provisions which will curtail voter participation and give undue influence of the state and the legislature over how elections are run in Georgia.
Beyond voting rights, the rightward push of GOP lawmakers seeking to appease their base and fend off primary threats was evident in other legislation. A bill to prevent local police departments from cutting their budgets by more than 5% (HB286) was clearly meant to show opposition to the “Defund Police” movement, regardless of the fact that very few police departments in Georgia are facing cuts. A bill allowing polluters to skirt regulations regarding waterways also passed (SB 260).
Taking another tack at increasing GOP power, a bill designed to increase lawmakers’ ability to raise unlimited money with little oversight (SB 221) passed early in the session.
Several of the most problematic bills did not ultimately become law. A gun reciprocity bill easily passed the Senate but was not ultimately brought up in the House. A Sine Die effort to target trans youth in sports failed to come up for a vote in the Senate. A draconian bill aimed at criminalizing protest also didn’t make it to the floor.
Good legislation that did make it to the Governor’s desk included a repeal of citizens arrest and paid parental leave for state employees (including teachers). The FY2021 Budget restored funding to many departments and programs that faced cuts in previous years, but still fell short of fully funding education and public health once federal Covid relief runs out.