By Beau Evans
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan on Wednesday unveiled a new bill aimed at punishing hate crimes in Georgia that critics fear could doom the hopes of passing similar legislation that has stalled in the state Senate for more than a year.
The bill pitched by Duncan would make it a crime to commit acts of violence or property damage based on a person’s race, sexual orientation, religion or other identifiers. Punishments would include imprisonment of up to five years.
The bill would also call for charges to be brought by a grand jury and give victims of hate crimes the ability to file lawsuits in civil court. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation would also start keeping data on hate-crime offenses in the state.
Duncan’s iteration of hate-crimes legislation drew immediate pushback from Georgia House lawmakers who have long pushed bills to criminalize acts of hate in Georgia, one of five states that currently do not have a hate-crimes law on the books.
Critics pressed Senate lawmakers to move forward with a different bill, House Bill 426, that cleared the Georgia House of Representatives last year, rather than pivot to new legislation so late in the 2020 legislative session.
The House measure, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, has been pushed by lawmakers from both parties in recent weeks following the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick in February, and amid intense nationwide protesting over racial injustice and police brutality.
Duncan defended his Senate bill Wednesday, highlighting how it would set stronger penalties and broader restitution rights than Efstration’s House bill.
He pointed out his bill would make hate crimes a separate charge instead of just an enhancement to another charge, as Efstration’s bill would do, and that it would increase prison time from two years to five.
“This issue is way too important for 11 million Georgians and we must get it right. We must put policy over politics,” Duncan said Wednesday morning at a news conference.
However, critics worry the move by Duncan could kill chances for any hate-crimes legislation to pass this year. New bills typically do not move forward in the General Assembly following Crossover Day, which has already occurred.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, on Tuesday called for the Senate to pass a “clean” hate-crimes bill and move forward with the previously passed House bill without amendments, which would force it to go back to the House floor for a vote.
On Wednesday, members of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus accused Duncan of bad-faith politicking to push out his bill so late in the session, particularly as Efstration’s hate-crimes bill has languished in the Senate without a committee hearing for nearly 430 days.
“It’s an insult to our intelligence for this man to say he had a change of conscience,” said House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon. “Do the right thing, lieutenant governor.”
Echoing calls from many other lawmakers, Beverly said the Senate should pass Efstration’s bill now and consider the broader measures contained in Duncan’s version during next year’s session.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, the General Assembly’s longest-serving member, argued the previously House-passed bill by Efstration could be the only way to pass hate-crimes legislation this year with the session more than three-fourths finished.
“We feel very strongly that [Efstration’s bill] has to be the vehicle by which this bill moves forward,” said Smyre, D-Columbus.
However, Duncan insisted his measure would have enough time to move forward in the coming days. He also said faith-based, business and elected leaders worked with him on the bill but did not specify who exactly.
“I urge all key stakeholders involved in this process to avoid the trappings of petty politics, generating unnecessary synthetic friction between the House and the Senate, and comparing Republican ideas to Democratic ideas,” Duncan said.