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State Politics

Five Issues Black State Lawmakers Plan to Tackle in 2023

Democratic leaders will unveil a set of policy proposals next month that they say will address some of the many problems impacting residents.

The Georgia General Assembly’s next legislative session is set to begin on Jan. 9. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

The Georgia General Assembly’s next legislative session is set to begin on Jan. 9. 

Some of its highest ranking Black lawmakers, all of whom are Democrats, recently spoke with Capital B Atlanta to explain their policy agenda for next year and how it will impact Black voters.

House Minority Leader James Beverly said Democrats’ overall plan is to “invest in and build a better Georgia” for all the state’s citizens.

To that end, Beverly said one of his goals is to improve the relationships and lines of communication that the state’s Black community has with Republican-led statewide offices, such as the departments of Labor and Transportation.

“It’s going to be my goal to make sure that Black folks have access to public officials at the state level, for sure,” Beverly said. “There’s going to be a lot more of ‘us’ doing things for ‘us’ over the next two years.”

The Georgia GOP and its top leaders in the state House and Senate haven’t responded to emailed requests for comment.

Here are five issues lawmakers want to tackle in January:

Expanding health care access

Hospital closures and overall lack of access to health care services have disproportionately impacted Black communities across the state.

Georgia continues to rank among the worst states in the nation when it comes to providing health care access to all its citizens. It’s one of just 11 states that haven’t fully adopted Medicaid expansion as of Nov. 9, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Beverly says expanding access to health care benefits is the top priority for Democrats next year.

“If you get sick in the state of Georgia, that should not be a death sentence because you don’t have a hospital that’s open near you,” Beverly said. “We have to extend health care benefits to all Georgians. Period.”

In the past, Republicans have resisted expanding Medicaid the way most states have done since federal lawmakers passed the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, in 2010.

But Gov. Brian Kemp has supported limited expansion of Medicaid this year. In Atlanta, the health care coverage crisis has worsened since then.

That reality, Beverly says, may motivate more Republicans, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, to vote in favor of expanding health care coverage along with Democrats.

“We’ve been fighting this battle for a long, long time,” Beverly said. “The governor has got to put his big boy pants on and really help folk and not try to put a Band-Aid on this health care situation.”

State Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones II of Augusta says organizing a study committee on home health care providers is on his personal list of legislative priorities.

“If you have to take care of your loved ones at home, how should that actually be approached?” Jones said. “It’s very difficult, especially, for African Americans, to be able to get a lot of the services that they are due just from a lack of knowledge, and sometimes, it may even be from a racial standpoint, too.”

Workforce development

Income inequality in Atlanta was the highest in the nation this year, largely due to long-standing systemic practices — such as redlining, gentrification, and mass incarceration — that have contributed to racial disparities in earnings and overall wealth.

Atlanta’s median household income for a Black family, as a result, is just over $28,000 while a white family in the city brings in a median household income of nearly $84,000, according to the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, a group working to create better opportunities for people of color in the South.

Companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook that have offices in metro Atlanta could be hiring more local workers if they’re trained properly, according to Beverly.

“They’re importing workforce from other states, which is fine, but what happens to the people in our communities that need to get into these places?” he said. 

House Democrats also plan to find ways to fund public transportation for trade school and technical college students who may not have the means to pay for their own travel to get the training they need to improve their economic prospects. That includes getting employers to help pick up the tab.

“If I’ve got to jump on a bus to get to a school and the school is 5 miles away from the bus stop, how do you get there?” Beverly said. “We should have operations in Georgia that pay people to go to these colleges while they’re being paid to learn.”

Beverly also says Democrats plan to continue advocating for bringing sports betting and casino gambling into the state. Gambling revenues, he said, can be used to fund workforce development programs to help more Black Georgians cultivate the skills needed to secure higher-paying jobs, including those in the state’s growing tech and alternative energy industries.

Gun safety

Gun violence was one of Black voters’ top concerns in 2022. The firearm homicide rate for Black males ages 15 to 34 in Georgia was 12 times higher than it was for white males between 2015 and 2019.

Local conversations about violent crime and young Black men recently hit a fever pitch in response to a deadly Nov. 26 shooting near Atlantic Station. Twelve-year-old Zyion Charles and 15-year-old Cameron Jackson were killed when two groups of teens clashed there following an argument earlier in the day.

Passing gun control legislation would require at least some support from Republicans. 

Beverly says Democrats are looking at proposing legislation related to how firearms are stored.

“A lot of shootings happen with kids, and even adults, accidentally,” Beverly said. “How many accidental deaths do you have when the storage mechanism is really not in place? It’s commonsense gun safety stuff.”

Democrats also plan to introduce legislation that prevents people with a history of violence or making violent threats from purchasing firearms.

“If you purchase a gun, should you have a background check? Yes, you should,” Beverly said. “If you’re prone to violence, there’s ways to figure that out. … We don’t want to go after the good guys, [but] we certainly want to make sure that bad guys don’t have guns.”

Democrats also want to appropriate more funding — via federal grants or other means — to support community policing in Georgia, according to Beverly, who said having law enforcement officers that people trust patrol the streets in their neighborhoods can help prevent crime before it happens.

Criminal justice reform

Beverly plans to introduce legislation to eliminate cash bail, which he and other criminal justice reform advocates argue often penalizes innocent people for being poor before they’ve had their day in court.

“You’re innocent until proven guilty, but [if] you ain’t got money to make the bail, then you stay in jail,” he said. “We’ve got to take a serious look at that, and I think we’ll have some robust conversations around that.”

Reducing penalties for marijuana use is a legislative cause that Jones, a former prosecutor, said he wants to take up in the state Senate.

An ACLU study released in April 2020 found that Georgia had the highest overall number of Black people arrested for marijuana possession. The same report found Black residents were three times more likely than white people to be arrested for carrying the drug, despite using it at about the same rate nationally.

It’s been more than five years since Atlanta City Council members voted to decriminalize misdemeanor marijuana possession, eliminating jail time as a punishment for carrying less than an ounce of the controlled substance.

Outside Fulton County, carrying more than an ounce of weed remains a felony offense, Jones said.

“What I wanted to do was, basically, say that if you have possession only, it would be a misdemeanor only,” Jones said. “That’s going to be another [legislative issue] that I’ll continue to push for next year.”

Abortion rights

Black people are just 33% of the state’s population, but they received 65% of the abortions performed in 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Black women in Georgia were twice as likely as their white counterparts to suffer pregnancy-related deaths between 2018 and 2020, according to the state Department of Health.

In November, the state’s Supreme Court reinstated Georgia’s controversial 2019 abortion restriction law barring the procedure from being performed after about six weeks of pregnancy in most cases.

Beverly says Republicans in the General Assembly may still look to legally strengthen or increase abortion restrictions in the state in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

He said Democrats will vehemently oppose any such legislation.

“It depends on where they go with it, but I think that’s going to be on their radar to double down with that,” Beverly said of Republican lawmakers. “What we’re saying is, a woman has a right to her own bodily autonomy. Anything beyond that is something we will absolutely go to war over.”