Nearly a year after Gov. Nathan Deal issued a forceful veto of legislation that would legalize guns on Georgia’s campuses, lawmakers sent a gun rights expansion into public colleges back to his desk. This time, though, he appears more likely to sign it.
The campus gun bill tops the list of consequential measures waiting for Deal’s approval that map out Georgia’s budgetary blueprint, expand the state’s medical marijuana program and dole out tax breaks to special industries.
Other contentious bills, including a sweeping income tax cut and a “religious liberty” revival, failed to reach his desk by the tumultuous end of the 40-day legislative session that wrapped up early Friday. Starting Friday, Deal has 40 days to sign the measures into law or veto them — and he’s shown he’s not afraid to wield the red pen.
Of the legislation awaiting his signature, the campus gun measure is destined to attract the most attention. Conservatives have tried for five years to allow people with permits to carry concealed firearms on most parts of public colleges, and last year they passed a bill that would do just that. They depicted it as a public safety measure.
In doing so, though, lawmakers defied Deal’s request for changes that would make exceptions to the expansion, and he issued a scathing veto of the measure. His message invoked an opinion by the late Justice Antonin Scalia that described colleges as “sanctuaries of learning where firearms have not been allowed.”
This year, the governor said he was willing to reopen the debate. In a late compromise between House and Senate leaders, lawmakers approved a measure that acceded to Deal’s demands to bar guns from on-campus child care facilities, faculty and administrative office space, and disciplinary meetings.
It also would exempt classrooms where high school students attend college campuses, as well as dormitories, sorority and fraternity houses, and athletic events.
Deal has said he is “receptive” to the bill as long as it made those changes, but he declined to comment on the measure Friday. Supporters expressed confidence he would sign the legislation, even if they had to include the restrictions that many social conservatives opposed.
“It didn’t do all that many members wanted it to do, but I understand that,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “You don’t all the time score a touchdown on a play, but we got a first down on that, at least. I’m pleased that we were able to get a bill that improves and strengthens the Second Amendment.”
The measure’s critics are eager to remind the governor of his stinging veto last year. The University System of Georgia opposed the measure, and among the Republican “no” votes were Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, whose district is home to part of the University of Georgia campus. Gun control advocates have already launched an ad campaign urging Deal to nix the measure again.
“I thought his veto message was eloquent and strong last year,” Democratic state Sen. Nan Orrock said. “It would be profoundly disappointing to see that bulwark fall. It’s dismaying to see how Georgia is following the gun-carry crowd deeper and deeper into the woods."
Some critics also point out a possible drafting error in the measure that could complicate his decision. Writing in GeorgiaPol.com, Democratic aide Stefan Turkheimer notes a lack of a comma in the provision regarding faculty offices could cause legal problems.
The governor is able to skirt several other tough decisions thanks to legislative infighting and behind-the-scenes work from his administration.
Lawmakers didn’t return any form of the “religious liberty” legislation he vetoed last year after the governor and House leaders banded against the measures, which social conservatives say are needed to protect faith-based initiatives but critics cast as legalized discrimination against gay couples.
But a revival of that debate also seemed to tank a long-planned update to the state’s adoption laws when Senate and House lawmakers couldn’t agree on a compromise after a fight over a Senate provision that could have allowed private agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples.
And the sparring chambers failed to negotiate a truce over legislation backed by the Senate that would provide a $200 million income tax cut — mostly to wealthier residents — and force e-retailers to collect sales taxes on what they sell.
Deal had hinted he would veto the tax break when he urged politicians to defy the “temptation” of broad tax increases that could jeopardize the state’s fiscal health.
He’ll put that mantra to the test with other measures approved by the General Assembly that would lower taxes on Georgians who lease vehicles and give new incentives to owners of giant yachts who get their boats repaired in Savannah’s shipyards.
A few other measures won’t be as vexing.
After the resounding defeat in November of the governor’s Opportunity School District plan, lawmakers quickly developed a “Plan B” that would give the state new powers to intervene in struggling schools. While not as far-reaching as Deal’s failed proposal of a constitutional amendment, the governor has embraced the First Priority Act and said he will sign it.
He also seems likely to approve a measure that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program by making six new conditions eligible for treatment with a limited form of cannabis oil, including Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, autism and Tourette’s syndrome.
And he is sure to sign the record $25 billion state budget that calls for 2 percent raises for most state employees and University System staffers, plus a 19 percent pay hike for child protective services workers, and maps out more than $2 billion in new spending on schools, college buildings, roads and bridges.
Already in the books is a midyear spending plan that gives most state law enforcement officers a 20 percent raise and a three-year extension of a hospital provider fee to shore up Medicaid funding.
But there are plenty of question marks remaining. That includes a proposal that would ban private colleges that don’t cooperate with federal immigration policies from tapping state funding for research and scholarships. He’s said little publicly about the Republican-backed effort, which was introduced shortly after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential race.
After all, the bill-signing period is nothing if unpredictable. Through his first five years in office, Deal averaged about eight vetoes a year, along with a scarcer number of line-item vetoes. He had never rejected more than 11 pieces of legislation in one year. But in 2016 he nullified 16 measures.
As he reminded legislators scrambling to pass measures in the final hours of the session, more red ink could be on the way.
“I may not sign all of them,” he said to scattered chuckles. “I don’t want to shock you with that statement.”