Duncan promises hate crimes bill as House balks at inaction

A top lieutenant of Georgia’s House speaker signaled Tuesday that the lower chamber may block Senate bills unless the Senate acts on a bill to increase state criminal penalties on hate crimes.

The move came amid weeks of nationwide protests against racial inequality and injustice and on the same day that Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced he would propose a much different measure than House Bill 426. The bill has been stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee since shortly after the House passed it in March 2019.

Duncan plans to release a draft of his hate crimes legislation at a news conference Wednesday morning. He predicts it will receive a hearing later this week in the committee, according to his chief of staff, John Porter.

“I’m committed to passing a strong, meaningful hate crimes bill that builds on the great work done in the House and protects all Georgians,” Duncan tweeted Tuesday.

The lieutenant governor’s measure would make a hate crime a standalone criminal charge, rather than an add-on qualifier to another crime that would increase a potential prison sentence, Porter said.

House Rules Committee Chairman Richard Smith, a Columbus Republican, abruptly adjourned Tuesday’s committee meeting without putting any bills before the full House to consider, saying it “is becoming an embarrassment to the state” that a Senate committee has yet to consider the house bill.

“Based on my thoughts, we are morally and legally required to pass two bills,” Smith said. “The first one we’re legally required to pass is the budget. The second one that we’re morally required to pass is the hate crimes bill. Meeting’s adjourned.”

The Rules committees of Georgia’s House and Senate are key gatekeepers, making up the list of what legislation each chamber will consider. Tuesday’s move will leave only nine business days for the House to consider legislation.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, gave a speech to the House on Monday in which he called the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery “an act of evil that defied belief” and again called on senators to act on the measure. Arbery was a black man shot by two white men who pursued him as he ran through a neighborhood near Brunswick in February.

“We later learned that the shooter stood over his body as his life ebbed away and pronounced his benediction with the most vile of racial slurs,” Ralston said. “Members of this body, that is hate.”

Two other top Republicans in the state Senate voiced support for an overhauled version of a hate crimes bill Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton said the House legislation needs a “hard look,” saying it was important to avoid having the state Supreme Court declare a new version unconstitutional, as it did with an earlier hate crimes law, and saying the measure needs to completely cover the subject.

“I’m a little disappointed that the author and the speaker are insisting it pass as written,” Dugan said. “Just doing one piece of it, you’re doing a weak hate crimes bill.”

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller of Gainesville said “there’s no place for hate or prejudice in our communities” but noted it was common for one chamber to make changes in the other’s legislative proposals.

“Maybe that bill can be improved,” Miller said.