A new governor, new lawmakers, new party affiliations and the third year of $1 billion budget shortfalls may result in one of the most contentious General Assembly sessions Georgia has seen.
“I think if you want to think of the nasty ugliest things that you could possibly imagine, that will be this year’s General Assembly,” said Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates). “I think the fight will be about everything. Now that [Republicans] have such a big majority they can do anything so I think you will see personal fights, budget fights, fights about everything.”
The annual 40-day legislative session begins Jan. 10, the same day Nathan Deal will be inaugurated as Georgia’s new governor.
First elected in 2000 as Georgia’s first openly gay state legislator, Drenner now finds herself as one of the senior Democrats in the state House at a time when her party holds the fewest seats its held since Reconstruction, and Republicans are only a few seats away from a super-majority in both chambers.
“Think about it: If they want to make a constitutional amendment all they need is three Democrats in the House and one in the Senate,” Drenner said. “If Doug McKillip flips three days after becoming Minority Leader what does it say about the rest of us?”
After the November election, a slew of Democrats switched parties, including McKillip. The lawmaker from Athens became a Republican after waging a campaign to be the leader of the House Democrats.
Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta) switched parties in 2006 and said that a changing tally doesn’t mean entire attitudes have shifted.
“It’s not like the members themselves have changed,” Jacobs said of the vast majority. “So we’ll see how that plays out.”
Some LGBT activists have feared that conservative lawmakers could use the new majority to push a gay adoption ban or similar legislation, but Jacobs, the most gay-friendly Republican in the General Assembly, said he hasn’t heard of anything.
After two years that saw $3 billion in cuts the General Assembly will have to slice Georgia’s budget once again. Although the size of the cuts won’t be known until Deal’s budget becomes public during the first week of the session, several reports have predicted the cuts to be in the $1 billion range. Georgia’s budget has fallen from a high of $20 billion to as low as $15 billion.
“The state has two options when the economy is the way it is: To make up a budgetary gap we can either raise taxes or cut spending, and the reality is that every day Georgians are hurting the same way the government is, and I prefer to cut spending,” Jacobs said, noting that the Republican Caucus has generally cut rather than raised taxes.
Where the funding cuts could most damage the gay community is the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. The program helps low income HIV positive individuals pay for their medication, and is currently operating with a waiting list of about 800 people.
On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, approximately 50 HIV activists and those living with HIV delivered some 1,200 postcards to Gov. Elect Deal’s office at the state capitol urging him to fund the ADAP program that provides medication to those who can’t get them any other way.
There is currently a $15 million shortfall in the state’s ADAP program, Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham said at the time. Georgia is expecting $10 million federal funding next spring but only if the state also funds the program, he explained.
Now Graham said he is hopeful that ADAP can at least avoid cuts this year.
“We know that there has been no serious effort to cut up to this point, and with a new governor coming in we won’t really know what his plans are until we see his budget,” Graham said.
Although Deal was widely criticized for running an anti-gay campaign in the Republican gubernatorial primary against former Secretary of State Karen Handel, and garnered a score of 0 on Congressional report card; on LGBT issues put out by the Human Rights Campaign, Graham is optimistic about state support for ADAP.
“This is an issue that Nathan Deal did work on while he was in Congress,” Graham said, explaining that Deal worked on the committee that oversees ADAP. “He actually was supportive in the past and we hope that he will continue to be supportive as governor.”
While always difficult to get lawmakers to lay their cards on the table this year has led some of Georgia’s gay friendly lawmakers to keep their plans quiet. Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta), the second openly gay member of the Georgia House, did not respond to requests for interviews and Drenner kept her cards close to her chest.
“I have some creative ideas for the gay community but it won’t be me who introduces it if I can find someone to carry it,” Drenner said, declining to comment further. Drenner said her support of a bill could cause it to be seen as a gay issue and damage its chances of passing.
While Drenner and Bell were supportive of last year’s effort to pass tougher anti-bullying legislation in the wake of the 2009 death of an 11-year-old DeKalb boy who committed suicide after enduring gay taunts, it was Jacobs who got the bill passed.
Jacobs passed four bills in the last term and like Drenner he’s not ready to discuss his plans for the upcoming session.
“I’m in the process of figuring out what legislation I am going to carry,” he said without elaboration.
Even the Anti-Defamation League, whose Georgia’s branch has pushed hate crime legislation for years, isn’t ready to talk about its plans for 2011.
“I’m not trying to be secretive, but because of all the changes at the capitol we’re behind where we normally are,” ADL Executive Director Bill Nigut said.
The ADL is looking for a Republican to carry a hate crimes bill that would include protections for transgender and gay individuals. It is also looking for sponsors for a bill to tighten cyber-bullying restrictions.
“We decided to take a year and back away from hate crimes and focus on an anti-bullying bill,” Nigut said. “But this year we really need to get back to pushing for hate crimes. We’re still one of five states without hate crimes.”
Taking the long road
Georgia Equality is looking to play the long game when it comes to the organization’s newest goal, passing a state Employment Non Discrimination Act that would include sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We really feel that now is the time we need to begin the conversation about employment discrimination that includes sexual orientation and gender expression here in Georgia. Knowing that ENDA won’t move on the federal level for several years and looking at Vandy Beth (Glenn)’s lawsuit I think now is the time to start a conversation,” Graham said.
Glenn was a legislative editor at the state Capitol who worked on correcting proposed legislation for two years until she was fired in 2006 after announcing her intention to transition from a male to a female on the job. With the help of Lambda Legal she filed a federal lawsuit which resulted in being awarded her job back. The state now pays Glenn a salary but has not allowed her to return to work while the case is appealed.
“I don’t think we will see movement early on,” Graham said. “We really look at the first year or two as the time to start the conversation.”
He pointed out that the bullying bill was a 10-year effort from dozens of organizations including Georgia Equality.
Top photo: State Rep. Karla Drenner, one of two openly gay members of the Georgia General Assembly, predicted this year’s session will be difficult as Republicans enjoy an even larger majority. (Photo courtesy Ga. House)