The Georgia General Assembly closed out the second week of the legislature’s two-year session Friday, busying itself with the governor’s budget recommendations and consideration of a host of controversial religious liberty proposals.

Governor Nathan Deal, entering the second year of his final term, unveiled his 2017 spending priorities, totaling $23.7 billion, in a Tuesday speech to House and Senate appropriators. Deal, who has made overhauling the state’s criminal justice system a priority of his administration, asked budget-writers to apportion some $30 million for prison reforms and renovation projects including:

  • $13.7 million for the renovation of Atlanta’s Metro State Prison
  • $6.3 million for system-wide renovations to manage a larger percentage of violent offenders
  • $5.7 million for behavioral health treatment for prisoners
  • $4.3 million for recently established prison-based charter schools from which inmates may work towards a conventional high school degree
  • $1.3 million for job-training programs at county correctional facilities

Deal had previously said in his State of the State address that he was proposing a three percent pay raise for state employees, including teachers, and an increase in K-12 education spending by some $300 million.

The latter half of the week’s political bandwidth was consumed by the debate over a pending quartet of religious liberty and First Amendment proposals (one a remnant of last year, three new).

After the earlier introduction of the Pastor’s Protection Act, seen by some as a softer, narrower alternative to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bill that stalled in the House last year, and House Bill 756, which would explicitly give license to business owners like florists and bakers to deny service to gays and lesbians, Sen. Greg Kirk offered legislation last week that he said would block the government from taking action against faith-based non-profits for their sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is a union of one man and one woman.

In a press conference Thursday, Kirk said his First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) would not allow public employees or elected officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses. Gay rights advocates, though, decried the legislation as “despicable” (Human Rights Campaign), “risks imperiling our state’s economy” (Georgia Equality) and “divisive and dangerous” (Lambda Legal).

The heated views from both sides ensure this is one debate that will run the length of the 40-day session.

Happening this week under the Dome

State Rep. Buzz Brockway will introduce legislation that would allow students at least 18 years of age to carry electroshock weapons (stun guns) on Georgia college campuses. (Legislation was introduced last year that would allow for licensed concealed firearms on campuses but faced intense opposition from universities and public safety advocates.)

Facing long odds, casino interests have course-corrected strategy in the legislature: rather than pursuing an outright legalization of Las Vegas-style betting parlors, the casinos will instead work to allow a statewide voter referendum to amend the constitution, which does not require the approval of Gov. Deal, who remains publicly wary of the proposition.

And speaking of casinos, the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee will host a hearing on Sen. Brandon Beach’s pari-mutuel wagering bill on horse racing.