Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle keeps defending an anti-gay “religious freedom” bill by digging in his heels and spitting out misleading and false claims about the legislation that sparked a national outcry and a veto from the governor.
Cagle launched a war on gay marriage last year so he could raise funds and the passions of supporters. With House Bill 757, the lieutenant governor sees an issue to keep them inflamed and his public profile high among the religious conservatives he hopes will back his run for governor in 2018. So he kisses the ring of Rev. Franklin Graham when he comes to Atlanta to rally against LGBT people. And he keeps talking about House Bill 757 with little regard to the veracity of what he says about the legislation.
Here's a look at some of the arguments he used to defend the law on Thursday in an interview with the AJC.
Cagle: “This bill was not drafted in a vacuum. The business community was very much at the table throughout this entire process. The Senate, the House and the governor’s office were privy to this discussion. And more times than not we thought we had a consensus to move forward on the bill. It is important to understand this was not a twelfth hour bomb. It was something that we worked on.”
Except that the legislation was created in a vacuum and behind closed doors. When the Senate approved an earlier version of the measure in February – the one that initially stirred a national backlash – it was dropped into a Senate Rules Committee meeting without lawmakers or the public first seeing it. Advocates on both sides testified in a brief hearing without having even seen the legislation. But only after lawmakers stalled for hours so they could step across the street and hear Graham rally against LGBT folks.
When lawmakers hijacked House Bill 757 in March and rewrote it to include portions of three bills, it was hatched and passed within a few hours. Again, without advance notice, without the public seeing it before lawmakers were asked to vote on it and without any public hearings.
The legislation is a conservative response to the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage, targets LGBT people and non-discrimination ordinances in nearly 60 municipalities around the state. Yet lawmakers drafted the legislation without consulting the state's three openly gay lawmakers or inviting LGBT groups to the negotiating table.
“Going back to the corporate question, I had a number of CEOs that called me. The first question I asked them is if they read the bill. Sadly enough, none of them could answer the question ‘yes.’ It’s important that people understand that 21 other states already have similar statutes in place. Twenty-one other states. … Has Disney pulled out of those states, has the NFL, has Apple?
Some 21 states have in place Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. But a state-level RFRA was only a portion of what was included in House Bill 757. The legislation went much further thanks to the inclusion of the First Amendment Defense Act, allowing faith-based groups to discriminate against LGBT people and others. It also threatened LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances across the state.
“The day after the bill was passed, what happened? Georgia-Pacific announced 600 new jobs in Atlanta. I haven’t seen anyone leave. Every corporation understands that Georgia is the best state to do business in in the nation. And the film industry loves our tax credit.”
In fact, what happened on March 17 – the day after the General Assembly approved House Bill 757 – was that Atlanta's economic development agency voted unanimously to issue $150 million in bonds to help finance the renovation of Georgia-Pacific's headquarters building on Peachtree Street, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
The renovation will allow the building to house a projected 1,300 additional employees – 600 Georgia-Pacific workers and 700 hired by tenants who lease space in the building. Georgia-Pacific did not announce on March 17 that they were adding 600 new jobs.
A review of Georgia-Pacific's news releases on its own website shows no official announcement from the company about adding new jobs. Not on March 17. Not in any press release since Jan. 1.
Additionally, Georgia-Pacific is owned by Koch Industries, a privately-held company run by the billionaire Koch brothers who often support conservative causes. And that film tax credit that Cagle brags of in his comments above? Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the Koch brothers, launched a nationwide effort against corporate tax incentives and film tax credits in Georgia and other states, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
This legislative session the group started lobbying to convince Georgia politicians that the state’s credits should be rolled back, the WSJ reports.
An Americans for Prosperity lobbyist in Atlanta said the group plans to build legislative and grass-roots support this year, and then back specific legislation next year, the paper adds.
Cagle's argument that businesses were bluffing and the threats of economic fallout over the bill were hollow is supported by a single anecdote citing an announcement that never took place from a company owned by two conservatives who want to undo the state's lucrative tax incentives for the film industry Cagle is bragging about. Huh.
The film industry does love the tax credit, as Cagle contends. But nearly the entire industry threatened to bolt Georgia and take the $1.7 billion it spends every year with it if House Bill 757 became law.
“I haven’t seen anyone leave. Every corporation understands that Georgia is the best state to do business in in the nation.”
Dozens of companies threatened to pull their business from the state over the legislation. But let's get down to the specifics that Cagle ignored.
Salesforce, a leading critic of the legislation, said it would reduce its investments in the state and pull its lucrative Salesforce Connections conference out of Atlanta over the legislation.
Some 15 companies told the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau they were considering pulling their conventions from the city, thanks to the legislation. ACVB estimated that the economic fallout could reach $6 billion.
And more specifically, the state's own economic development officials provided more hard evidence of the bill's fallout. Via the AJC:
“We received official notification this morning that Georgia was dropped from contention from two pending economic projects we had been working at gdec prior to any decision being made on the bill,” wrote Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff, referring to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
“Both projects cited Hb 757 as why they were removing Georgia from consideration.”
In the wake of Deal's veto, one of those companies put Georgia back on its list of places to consider.
“This bill did undergo a lot of work over the past two years. And I don’t think people really realize the depth of rewrites and careful language that was placed into this bill. I think it was a very good bill. And I stand behind the bill because I believe it is truly equal protection. It truly is equal protection. Unlike those from the extreme left, who want to make this out as a discriminatory bill, I flat out reject that argument.”
Equal protection for whom – religious conservatives already protected by state and federal law? It is a discriminatory bill. Deal said so when he vetoed it. Mayor Kasim Reed said so. The Atlanta City Council said so. Faith leaders said so. Lawmakers said so. LGBT advocates said so. Tens of thousands of Georgians said so. Even a Republican former U.S. Attorney said so.
As Cagle doubles-down on the legislation, he keeps defending discrimination, alienating fair-minded businesses and saying very little about the legislation that is true.
Former GOP campaign consultant turned movie investor Patrick Millsaps summed up the work of conservative lawmakers like Cagle on the “religious freedom” legislation in an interview with the AJC.
“So your politicians did it again. They invented an issue, drew some battle lines, and riled up their sides so that we hate on each other just a little bit more,” Millsaps wrote. “And in this case they used an issue to play chicken with Georgia’s economy.”