Gun laws, anti-crime budget among Georgia lawmakers' 2022 priorities

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The Georgia State Capitol building houses the state government offices and the General Assembly, which opens its 2022 session Tuesday. 

ATLANTA — While budgeting for public safety and mental health initiatives are Georgia House Speaker David Ralston’s top priories this legislative session, public education, gun rights and tax relief are also on the agenda of Georgia legislators for the 2022 session.

The number of homicides in Atlanta peaked to 158 in 2021 and youth suicide rates are at an all-time high, Ralston said. Several standalone pieces of legislation that aim to decrease those numbers will be included in his $50 million budget proposal.

On crime, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has announced plans to work with lawmakers to create a $250 million state tax credit program called Law Enforcement Strategic Support “LESS Crime” Act, which would allow the public and corporations to donate to their local law-enforcement agency. The donor would receive a 100% dollar-for-dollar state tax credit, according to the plan.

Law-enforcement agencies will be required to allocate those dollars to pay officers more, hire additional officers and increase officer training.

“Rising crime is affecting individuals, businesses and Georgia families, and combatting this problem will not be accomplished by one solution alone,” Duncan said. “My goal is to bolster law-enforcement agencies across our state by giving each community the tools necessary to prevent and stop crime. Big problems call for big solutions, and I look forward to building a bipartisan coalition in the Senate and House to make the LESS Crime Act a reality.”

When it comes to mental health, Ralston plans to include funding to expand the capacity for mental health treatment, bed space and incentives to entice workers into the field of mental health.

Like several states looking to ban any teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in public schools, Ralston said the issue will likely be discussed when the session starts Jan. 10.

The concept of CRT suggests that systemic racism is part of American society and is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that lead to racial inequalities.

“This was something that we saw in Virginia, a lot of discussion up there about this whole topic includes not only CRT, but many of the other alternative notions of history and other things that are being discussed, if not taught, now,” Ralston said during a news conference Jan. 6. “I think it's important that we address those and put up some guardrails so that we don't run into those kind of problems here in Georgia.”

Critical race theory is not included in any of the curriculum in public schools at the elementary, middle and high school level in Georgia.

Several Republican candidates are campaigning on eliminating state income taxes. While Ralston said he supports finding mechanisms for tax relief for Georgians, an outright elimination may not be attainable.

“I haven't heard of how we're going to make up the (budget) gap and what are we going to close and cut to do that?” Ralston said. “I think going at it in an incremental way is a much more desirable way to do it. That’s how I favor doing it. Frankly, I think that's the responsible way.”

Ralston doesn’t intend for abortion-related bills to be discussed this session, though many states proposed restrictive abortion bills in their dockets.

Ralston and leaders in Tennessee and Alabama have indicated they’re awaiting the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision in a lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s proposed 15-week abortion ban.

“There's no topic that we've talked about that's more emotionally charged than that,” Ralston said. “The issue is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and so I think that my position is that we ought to wait and we will wait until we get a decision on the Mississippi law, and we can then look at it and see what how it impacts what we did in 2019.”

In 2019, Georgia lawmakers passed a six-week abortion ban, which would have made it illegal to get an abortion if the fetus' heartbeat can be detected. However, the law was challenged by civil rights groups and a federal judge blocked it from going into effect, stating that it violates the constitutional right to privacy.

Gun laws will be debated among state leaders this session, especially as Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday his goal of easing gun carry laws in the state. Kemp argued a citizen's right to carry a gun is granted in the U.S. Constitution without state government approval.

“Now, more than ever, law-abiding Georgians want a strong commitment to the Second Amendment and the right to protect themselves,” Kemp said on Twitter.

Though many Democrat lawmakers have spoken against easing gun laws — which would do away with a permit requirement for gun owners — Ralston, a Republican, said he could support the move under certain conditions.

Currently, gun owners must have a weapons carry license to carry a concealed weapon in public. The license is obtained after a fee is paid and criminal and mental health background checks are cleared.

“I think we have some safeguards in the law that regardless of which direction we go in, that we need to keep,” Ralston said. “For example, the mental health component of that is something that I don't want to see us chunk that away. I've talked to law-enforcement officers about that and they're very fearful on that. I think we can do an expansion without touching those parts of the current law.”

A proposal to legalize certain types of gambling or sports betting could make way this year, with Ralston suggesting the topic be put before Georgia voters.

Ralston also indicated plans to drop a bill that would allow the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate election law violations without authorization from state officials. Election laws changed in Georgia and several Republican-led states following the loss of former Republican U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made baseless claims he lost due to election fraud.

“I think that would give us the professional, thorough, investigative body to go in and, from the get-go and look at these things,” Ralston explained. “Here we are now, 14 months after an election, and you still have some people who don't accept the results. Part of that is due to the fact that we didn’t have an independent, non-political investigation, go in early. Had we had that, I don't think we would be here.”

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