The Georgia General Assembly has earned a reputation for being one of America’s most conservative legislative bodies.
When Republicans outnumber Democrats by two-to-one in the state Senate and House of Representatives, you wouldn’t expect otherwise.
You would still be surprised at some of the bills that were seriously considered during this year’s session. A number of these measures were actually very liberal in their methods and goals.
For example, SB 318 allows bars and taverns to open on Sunday if St. Patrick’s Day happens to fall on a Monday, as it does this year.
There was a time when such a bill would not even have been introduced for fear of arousing the wrath of religious conservatives.
Not this year. The St. Patrick’s Day Sunday drinking bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal in plenty of time for Savannah establishments to offer celebrants a relaxing beverage for the celebration of the green.
Think about HB 885, Rep. Allen Peake’s bill to legalize the limited use of cannabis oil, a marijuana derivative, for the treatment of seizure disorders in children.
For a long time, the legalization of marijuana was something that only hippie potheads cared about. If ever there was an issue for liberals, it’s this one.
Peake’s bill passed the House, however, by the margin of 171-4 and received thoughtful consideration from many conservative lawmakers.
Then there’s HB 697, a bill from Reps. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) and Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) to increase HOPE grant awards for about 20 percent of technical college students so that it pays their full tuition.
Lawmakers put extra money into the budget to pay for HB 697, whose goal is to encourage more Georgians to take job-training courses at the state’s technical schools.
Many of my conservative friends get very upset when you talk about spending additional public money on education.
They tell me you can’t improve schools by taking the liberal approach of “throwing money at them.”
But in fact, that’s what the sponsors of HB 697 were trying to do for our technical schools – and a lot of conservative Republicans voted for that bill.
In the area of healthcare, Sens. Tim Golden (R-Valdosta) and Renee Unterman (R-Buford) introduced SB 397, a bill that would require insurance companies to cover the costs of treating children for autism.
SB 397 had the support of influential Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons). It passed the Senate by a unanimous vote, which means that not a single conservative senator voted against the measure.
The curious aspect of SB 397 is that it does the same thing for similar reasons as the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare). SB 397 takes a specific medical condition – autism – and mandates that insurance companies will cover the costs of treating that condition.
A majority of the Legislature hates Obamacare – but a large number of those lawmakers voted for a bill in SB 397 that is not much different from President Obama’s healthcare act.
A similar bill was HB 943, sponsored by Rep. Lee Hawkins (R-Gainesville). This bill would require health insurers to provide “parity of coverage” for both intravenous and oral forms of chemotherapy cancer treatments.
There were some strong similarities between this bill and Obamacare – but it passed.
The Legislature even adopted a bill authorizing a monument on the capitol grounds to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Liberal Democrats have tried for years, without success, to get this bill passed. Conservative lawmakers provided the votes this year to make it happen.
It’s important to keep all of this in perspective. At the same time the House and Senate approved the bill to put King’s statue on the capitol grounds, they also passed legislation to build a Ten Commandments monument in the same locale.
Republicans additionally brought forth bills that would allow guns in bars, churches and public buildings, along with a measure to require food stamp applicants to pass a drug test.
The General Assembly is still a very conservative institution, to be sure, but it’s fascinating to see the support for bills that use liberal methods to achieve liberal policy objectives.
It goes to show you never can tell.