The fate of several proposed laws that could impact the lives of Black Georgians will be decided on Wednesday, the 40th and final day of the state’s latest legislative session — aka Sine Die.
The term “Sine Die” is a Latin phrase that means “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing.” In Georgia, it’s the last day of the year for state government bills to be passed.
Measures that fail to pass signature by the end of Sine Die must wait until next year — for the start of the 2024 legislative session — to be considered again.
House and Senate members stay up late negotiating amendments and language to be included in final bills before they’re signed on Sine Die or the days leading up to it. Republicans have majority control in both of Georgia’s legislative chambers, which means they’re the ones who usually decide what bills are passed.
Funding for local elections boards, renters’ rights, welfare benefits, and public safety are among the measures expected to receive final up or down votes by Wednesday night’s end.
Below is a breakdown of other key bills that are still on the table, why they matter and what’s expected to happen to them.
HB 404 — Safe at Home Act (aka tenants rights bill)
What it does: Renters across Georgia would receive some fundamental legal protections if this bill gets signed into law. The legislation requires landlords to provide rental homes that are “fit for human habitation.”
The bill would limit the amount a landlord can charge for security deposits at two times the monthly rent. It also would bar landlords from cutting off the air conditioning of tenants who are being evicted and mandate tenants receive a three-day grace period to pay their rent to avoid an eviction.
Why it matters: Georgia has some of the weakest tenant protection laws in the country. In metro Atlanta, there are reports of landlords neglecting repairs in lower-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods.
What’s expected to happen: Lawmakers and political observers from both parties anticipate HB 404 will get signed into law before Sine Die ends. The measure received bipartisan support in the House earlier this month, but a version of the bill still needs to be passed by the Senate before Kemp can sign it into law.
Republican lawmakers typically avoid imposing regulations on landlords, but state Sen. Gloria Butler, a Democrat representing Stone Mountain, said she expects HB 404 will be different.
“A lot of them are landlords and they don’t want to be embarrassed by not having their properties well kept,” Butler said of her Republican colleagues. “They know it’s the right thing to do.”
Leo Smith, a Republican strategist, also expects HB 404 will get signed into law on or before Sine Die.
“Telling people they’ve got to [pay] three, four months worth of [rent for a] security deposit is ridiculous,” Smith said. “One month should be enough, but they capped it at two months. So I guess that’s progress.”
SB 44 — Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act
What it does: Individuals convicted of criminal gang-related offenses must receive a minimum additional five years in prison on top of their sentence for other crimes if this bill is enacted. Those who involve minors or disabled persons in gang-related crimes would receive a 10-year sentence at minimum.
The proposed law also would restrict judges from converting an offender’s prison time into parole time.
“They are committing conservatively 75% to 80% of all of the violent crime we are seeing in our community,” Willis said of gang members during a related press conference in May of last year.
Some criminal justice reform advocates and Democratic lawmakers fear increasing minimum sentencing guidelines could lead to more Black people unduly getting locked up for longer sentences.
Georgia still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country despite making progress on reducing its prison population in recent years. Nearly 60% of the state’s prison inmates were Black in 2019, according to a University of Georgia study.
Sen. Butler said she voted against SB 44 in February because of its added mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
“Mandatory minimums are disproportionately levied against Black people,” Butler said. “We’ve got to do more to keep our young Black boys in a safer place. Try to keep them in school. Have more activities for them.”
What’s expected to happen: The House and the Senate both passed versions of SB 44 earlier this year. Butler and Smith expect Kemp, who has called for tougher penalties on gang members, will sign the measure into law before Sine Die comes to an end.
SB 92 — Oversight of prosecuting attorneys
What it does: SB 92 would create a state board with the power to investigate, punish and remove local district attorneys from office for failing to perform their duties.
Why it matters: Supporters of SB 92 argue it’s necessary to ensure local prosecutors are doing their jobs. Some local prosecutors have publicly refused to prosecute residents in violation of the state’s strict abortion law that was reestablished last year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that gave women the constitutional right to choose abortion.
Critics of SB 92, including Willis, a Democrat, who characterized the proposed law as “racist” while pointing out the number of minority DAs in Georgia went from five to 14 in 2020.
What’s expected to happen: Gov. Kemp could sign SB 92 into law on Sine Die. The Senate passed the bill on March 2. The House passed a version of the measure on Monday.
SB 63 — Expanding cash bail requirements
What it does: This bill would expand the list of alleged crimes that require defendants to post bail before they’re released to await trial. Marijuana-related violations, obstruction of an officer, forgery, and criminal trespass would be among the more than 30 new criminal charges requiring bail if this legislation becomes law.
Why it matters: In 2018, nearly 49% of people arrested for drug-related offenses in Georgia were Black. Law enforcement officials have cited eliminating cash bail for low-level offenses as a contributor to rising crime.
What’s expected to happen: The bill could be revived on Sine Die. As of Monday night, the House still hasn’t passed its version of SB 63. The Senate passed the measure on Feb. 23.
SB 233 — The Georgia Promise Scholarship Act
What it does: This bill would give $6,500 per school year scholarship accounts to parents of kindergarten through 12th-grade students to pay for tuition and other education-related expenses at the schools of their choice. Previous versions of the bill only allocated $6,000 per scholarship.
Why it matters: Limited funding has hindered some majority-Black, public school districts in Georgia. Opponents of SB 233 argue it would cause already-struggling public schools in Black and brown communities to lose additional revenue, which would hurt education quality for students who remain in those schools.
Democratic lawmakers including Butler argue wealthier families are more likely to benefit from SB 233 if it becomes law. She pointed out it costs more than $11,000 on average for students to attend K-12 private schools in Georgia.
“$6,500, that’s not enough for a disadvantaged person that doesn’t have enough money to go to a private school,” Butler said. “What [SB 233] does is take money out of the public schools. They get targeted by those fly-by-night private schools that are all about the money. They want to take advantage of the voucher money.”
Supporters of SB 233, including Smith, point out it would restrict eligibility to students attending the lowest-achieving 25% of public schools, which typically reside in underprivileged neighborhoods. Eligible students don’t have to use the program to attend private schools, according to Smith.
“There might have been some dealmaking on this bill to not talk about the fact that you actually could go from public [school] to public [school],” he said. “You could use this money to go from a low-performing 25% public school to a public charter, for instance.”
What’s expected to happen: House members tabled the measure on Thursday, March 23, more than two weeks after the Senate passed it. Kemp may have saved this bill at the last minute. During a Monday interview on the Erick Erickson Show, Kemp called on his House GOP colleagues to pass SB 233.
SB 222 — Third-party funding for county election offices
What it does: This bill would make it a felony for county election offices to receive donations from third-party entities. Convicted violators of the proposed law would receive at least one year in prison and a minimum $10,000 fine.
Why it matters: Republican lawmakers created SB 222 in response to the DeKalb County Voter Registration & Elections Office receiving a $2 million grant in January from the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, a self-described nonpartisan group working to help local election departments improve their operations.
Supporters of SB 222 claim the bill is necessary to prevent potentially biased external groups from influencing Georgia elections. Opponents, including pro-democracy nonprofits like Common Cause Georgia, contend SB 222 was designed to stifle county election boards from receiving critical funding used to boost voter turnout.
Common Cause Georgia executive director Aunna Dennis says SB 222 is bad for Black voters because it would prevent financially limited county election boards from using third-party funding to pay for services that maximize people’s ability to vote, like early voting and mobile voting precinct vehicles.
“When you’re taking that extra funding away, you’re limiting the type of creativity that election offices can have to meet their voters where they are,” Dennis said.
What’s expected to happen: Gov. Brian Kemp will probably sign SB 222 into law on Wednesday. The Senate passed the measure on March 2. A House version of the legislation was approved Monday night thanks to a 100-69 party-line vote.
HB 129 — Welfare benefits for pregnant women
What it does: Pregnant women would be eligible to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program benefits if this bill becomes law.
Why it matters: A decline in maternal care access due to health service providers shutting down operations across Georgia has disproportionately impacted Black women throughout the state.
What’s next: The House and Senate have passed versions of this bill. Kemp could sign it into law before Sine Die ends.