5 things to watch on the final day of Georgia's 2023 legislative session

Lawmakers rush to their seats after the voting machines open in the House Chambers on Crossover Day morning, March 6, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The biggest day of the year at the Georgia General Assembly has arrived. On this final day of the session, lawmakers are scrambling to get their passion projects to the governor’s desk — or put a stop to the measures they want defeated. 

Georgia’s Constitution requires that the assembly pass a budget during their 40-day session, which they’ve yet to get squared away. In between, the legislature will keep ticking through a laundry list of unfinished bills up until about midnight. That’s roughly when leadership shouts “sine die” and lawmakers toss their papers into the air — leaving the rest for next session.

Here are five themes the WABE politics team is keeping their eyes on as Sine Die unfolds.

  1. How will the battle between the House and Senate play out?

The House and Senate have new leaders at the helm this year — House Speaker Jon Burns and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones. The leadership of both chambers have pledged to foster a collegial and productive relationship between the two bodies, but that seems to have crumbled a bit during the final weeks of the session.

The Senate is holding up the latest iteration of mental health reform, which House leadership has made a top priority. They were also duking it out over a bill backed by Jones that would open the door to construct more rural hospitals, but may have jeopardized negotiations with Wellstar to possibly take over the Augusta University Health System.

And then there’s been the back and forth over the state budget, with budget writers at a standstill over how to handle funding for the HOPE scholarship, Georgia Public Broadcasting, the University System of Georgia and other issues.

We’re watching to see how all this will shake out — and what legislation will get caught in the cross-hairs.

  1. How will Gov. Kemp flex his muscles?

Kemp has been publicly pretty mum on legislation actively moving through the Capitol. Will Kemp step in to ensure any priority legislation gets passed? And will that be behind the scenes or out in public?

Kemp typically addresses both chambers in the final hours of Sine Die. Last year, he used that opportunity to urge lawmakers to get a bill done that laid the groundwork for banning transgender children from playing on the school sports team that matches their gender identity. And they did — in the final moments of the session. 

Earlier this week, Kemp said in a radio interview on WSB that he would like the school voucher bill to get across the finish line. How much political capital will he spend to make sure it happens?

Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns at a House GOP press conference on Nov. 14, 2022. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)
  1. How will Democrats wield what power they have?

Democrats, of course, are in the minority in both the House and Senate. But Republicans have narrower margins than they used to, so Democrats have some clout when the GOP isn’t unified.

Take gambling for example. Republicans may not have enough votes to get this passed on their own, due to opposition from some of the more conservative members of the caucus. The backers of online sports betting, including Lt. Gov. Jones, need Democrats. How will Democrats leverage this dynamic to further their own goals — like passing mental health reform?

This could also play out in the reverse — with Democrats using that leverage to stop school vouchers or legislation to codify a definition of anti-Semitism some have said chills free speech.

State Rep. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, speaks during the debate on HB 30. The bill would codify a definition for antisemitism. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

  1. What’s the fate of controversial legislation left for the end?

The legislature has left several hot-button topics for the final hours of the session. 

The latest mental health reform bill has yet to make it out of a Senate committee. The most viable bill for legalizing online sports betting has yet to hit the Senate or House floor. The school vouchers bill was pulled before a House vote at the last minute last week — will it reappear? 

And the legislature still has to take up the antisemitism bill again, days after it nearly hit the rocks and then was resurrected by cutting and pasting the language into another bill. Plus, the budget is still up in the air.

With these bills still outstanding, it could make for an unpredictable Sine Die.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023 marks the final day of Georgia’s legislative session. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)
  1. Will the legislature run out of time to get even broadly popular bills done?

Every session, literally hundreds of bills are introduced. 

Not everything has time to get through subject area committees, the Rules committees and the floor in both chambers all before Sine Die.

Bills with bipartisan support like a ban on car booting and basic protections for housing tenants have not received final votes yet — and time may simply run out to get everything done.

But, sessions are technically two years. So unlike last year, where bills that didn’t make it to the governor’s desk are totally dead, unpassed bills don’t have to start over come January 2024. Their supporters can just pick up where they left off.

You can follow the status of key legislation with WABE’s 2023 Gold Dome Bill Tracker and follow the WABE Politics Team on Twitter @gringsam and @RahulBali.

Rahul Bali contributed to this report.