Georgia GOP leaders reject anti-LGBT legislation

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Top Republicans under the Gold Dome made it clear Thursday that “religious freedom” and other anti-LGBT measures won’t be a priority during the legislative session that opens next week.

The lessons from battles over anti-LGBT bills in Indiana and North Carolina ­seem to be sinking in. House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said similar legislation in Georgia isn’t a priority for their legislative agendas.

“I don't know that an issue that so divides Georgia as that one does is something that we need to be devoting a lot of attention to,” Ralston said Thursday during a press briefing about the upcoming session.

Ralston (second photo) said he is reluctant to deal with an issue that is both divisive and time consuming – and a bill that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed last March.

“We've dealt with that for three years. I've sort of taken the hits on a couple of those years and I'm willing to take the hits again this year. I don't know that an issue that so divides Georgia as that one does is something that we need to be devoting a lot of attention to. We passed a good bill out of the House last year, the Pastor Protection Act. I support that bill and if someone wants to bring that bill back this year then I will certainly support it,” Ralston said.

“Georgia's got so many good things going right now and I'm not sure that we want to model after North Carolina and Indiana and some other states like that. I think we have to be very, very careful. I'm not going to devote a lot of energy to that this session because it's taken too much, frankly,” he added.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (top photo), who is president of the Senate and the state's second-highest ranking Republican, also indicated a reluctance to take up anti-LGBT measures again in 2017. Cagle is a likely candidate for governor in 2018.

Cagle, joined by GOP Senate leadership including Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, didn’t include “religious freedom” bills among his legislative priorities during a press conference on Thursday. Cagle said the election of President-elect Donald Trump and his likely appointment of a conservative justice to the Supreme Court has cooled interest in the anti-LGBT legislation.

“Well, obviously, predominantly the issue around religious liberties was addressed, as you know, last year. And we’re in a different environment today,” Cagle said. “The environment is one where we have a new president. A president who is going to, I think, appoint a justice that’s going to be conservative. And much of the fears that existed prior to that may have subsided some.”

Cagle also downplayed speculation that lawmakers may see a North Carolina-like bill targeting transgender people, their restroom use and municipal LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances. Cagle rejected the idea, at least, of one coming from GOP leadership.

“I am not aware of any of this thus far,” Cagle said.

Despite the pronouncements from Ralston and Cagle, Sen. Josh McKoon, who has sponsored “religious freedom” legislation for three years, has promised to push the bill again this year. He and other lawmakers have also said they'll pursue an anti-transgender bill like the one that has roiled North Carolina politics for months. McKoon's efforts cost him the chair of a Senate judiciary committee.

'I don’t think that anyone is looking to discriminate'

On Thursday, Cagle also addressed the push from federal lawmakers to repeal the Affordable Care Act and how that might impact Georgia. Repealing the ACA, often called Obamacare, would also undo parts of the law that ensure transgender people have equitable access to healthcare. That would leave it up to states to put in place non-discrimination measures, or other protections, to ensure trans people continue to have access to healthcare.

Cagle provided no assurance that Georgia lawmakers would put in place any protections.

“Obviously I don’t think that anyone is looking to discriminate against any individual, and certainly as it relates to healthcare as a whole. We are very, very clear in that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as many would refer to it, does need to be repealed and replaced,” he said.

Cagle made it clear that he favors repealing the ACA.

“And what we have seen nationally, 24 percent on average increase cost in healthcare, this is having a tremendous impact on everyday working people. So we believe that Washington needs to repeal it and replace it. What that’s going to look like obviously will be determined. But we believe that states need to be at the table, and certainly be very active in addressing what the solution will look like,” he said.

When pressed again on providing protections for trans people, Cagle said, “Again those issues need to be determined and I think I answered your question.”

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