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Lawsuit limits and antisemitism are among topics Georgia lawmakers plan to take on in 2024

By JEFF AMY, Associated Press
Published: January 8, 2024, 8:11am

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s General Assembly began its 2024 regular session Monday and the top intrigue is whether Republicans, after longtime opposition, may agree to a further expansion of health care for poor adults under the state’s Medicaid program.

Republican House Speaker Jon Burns of Newington said he wants to explore the idea, and Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones said he is willing to consider it. Gov. Brian Kemp, the state’s top Republican, has championed a more limited expansion of coverage.

Because it’s the second year of the two-year legislative term, all the measures that didn’t pass last year are still alive. That means things can happen fast, especially for bills that got close to passage. For example, many people expect a quick resolution on a push to create new educational vouchers.

This also is an election year for the 180 representatives and 56 senators, although not for Kemp or Jones. Lawmakers may look toward measures that will please their supporters or win them votes. With state coffers bulging, further pay increases for public employees and teachers appear likely. Republicans are also pushing a further income tax cut.

Here is a look at other top issues that could arise as state lawmakers meet for 40 business days over the next three months:

LAWSUIT LIMITS

Kemp has said he wants to make it harder for people to file lawsuits and win big legal judgments. He has said Georgia’s high insurance rates are among the harms of such lawsuits.

Georgia lawmakers capped noneconomic damages including pain and suffering in a 2005 tort reform law, but the state Supreme Court overturned such caps as unconstitutional in 2010.

Owners of commercial properties and apartments have been some of the biggest supporters of limits, saying they are getting unfairly sued when unrelated parties do wrong on their property. Another big backer is the trucking industry, which wants to end the right of people to sue insurers directly.

ELECTION LAW

Fighting about elections and the laws that govern them has rarely paused since 2018 in Georgia, and more measures could be debated in 2024.

Some partisans may seek a measure clarifying that the State Election Board has legal authority to investigate Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, seeking an inquiry into the Republican’s handling of post-election audits following Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in Georgia.

Those who question Biden’s victory also want a bill allowing them to review paper ballots, pursuing claims of counterfeit ballots.

Raffensperger is asking for $4.7 million to be appropriated for machines to allow voters to check the computer codes printed on their ballots. Those who distrust Georgia’s electronic balloting system could counter with bills to outlaw the codes or to let voters mark ballots by hand.

Some lawmakers are unhappy Raffensperger won’t update software on voting machines before the 2024 presidential election. The secretary says there is not enough time to install updates

Raffensperger has renewed his call to eliminate runoffs after general elections when no candidate wins a majority.

PROSECUTOR DISCIPLINE

Top Senate Republicans plan a bill to remove the requirement that the Georgia Supreme Court approve rules for a new commission to discipline and remove state prosecutors. The court in November ruled that it lacked authority to do so, which meant the commission could not begin operating. A House Republican also has promised a quick fix.

Some Republicans in Georgia want the new commission to discipline or remove Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for indicting former President Donald Trump.

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Georgia’s law is one of multiple Republican attempts nationwide to control prosecutors. Opponents say the law creates a bias in favor of prosecuting people, but supporters say district attorneys violate their oaths of office if they don’t prosecute.

DEFINING ANTISEMITISM

A bill to define antisemitism in Georgia law stalled in 2023 in a debate over how the measure should be worded. The measure already was supported by many lawmakers and the pressure to act has only grown with strong Republican support for Israel in its war with Hamas.

Sponsors say a definition would help prosecutors and other officials identify hate crimes and illegal discrimination targeting Jewish people. But some critics warn it would limit free speech, especially in criticizing the actions of Israel. Others don’t oppose a law, but object to the measure defining antisemitism by referring to a definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

A group of prominent evangelical Christians, including Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel, Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Jentezen Franklin of megachurch Free Chapel, wrote to Georgia lawmakers in December urging them to adopt the IHRA definition.

MENTAL HEALTH

House members made a big push in 2023 for a bill that would recruit more mental health workers, help people who bounce between hospitals, jails and homelessness, and study other needs. That measure faltered in a broader House-Senate dispute.

This year, mental health leaders say they expect to focus on more money to raise pay, increase payments to service providers and open more crisis beds. But legislation may still be needed for some priorities, including addressing the backlog of pretrial mental health evaluations for people accused of crimes.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Georgia could join other states requiring children younger than 18 to get their parents’ permission to create social media accounts. Republican Sen. Jason Anavitarte of Dallas said in August that he would push such a proposal.

Georgia wouldn’t be the first state to seek such a restriction, but efforts in other states have been challenged by lawsuits.

In the House, Education Committee Chairman Chris Erwin, a Homer Republican, says lawmakers need to study whether threats and other social media activity hurt schools’ ability to function, although he has made no specific proposals.

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