State Republican leaders indicated Thursday they are not prioritizing religious exemption bills that have headlined legislative sessions in years past.
Republican House and Senate leaders spoke about their legislative agendas Thursday for this year’s General Assembly which starts Monday. The Senate GOP Caucus’s priorities included topics ranging from health care to education funding, but did not include religious exemptions bills.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the state Senate, said it’s a different environment today because of the recent election.
“We have a new president – a president who is going to, I think, appoint a justice that’s going to be conservative – and much of the fears that existed prior to that may have subsided to some degree,” Cagle said.
Last year, lawmakers passed a religious exemption bill that would have allowed faith-based groups to deny services based on religious beliefs. The bill faced stiff opposition from Georgia’s business community, which argued that it could allow discrimination or the perception of discrimination against those in the LGBT community. Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed the bill.
State House Speaker David Ralston said he’s not going to devote a lot of energy to the issue this session because it has taken up a lot of time in the Legislature in the past.
“Georgia’s got so many good things going right now and I’m not sure that we want to model after North Carolina and Indiana and some other states like that – I think we have to be very, very careful,” Ralston said.
Other religious exemptions bills in states like North Carolina prompted businesses to leave the state.
Still, at least one lawmaker, Sen. Josh McKoon, said he’s pushing for religious exemptions bills this year.
State GOP leaders said they’re also in a holding pattern when it comes to health care because of what may happen to the Affordable Care Act at the federal level, which President-elect Trump has promised to work to appeal.
State Senate majority leaders said the chamber will create a “Repeal and Replace” task force to ready the state for any changes that happen on the federal level. State Democrats have been pushing for the state to expand Medicaid, and some Republicans had been talking about the issue up until the election.
State Sen. Renee Unterman, who chairs the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, said they’ll work on other health care issues for now.
“We’re like every other state in the nation – we have to wait and see what Washington is going to do, but we’re not going to sit idly by and do nothing, and that’s why we’re going to focus on mental health issues and some of the more critical issues that we see,” Unterman said.
She said Senate Republicans will also focus on a legislative package on tackling the state’s opioid epidemic, including allowing the overdose-reversing drug, naloxone, to be made available over the counter permanently.
The state Legislature convenes Monday for its 40-day session.
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