New Ga. House speaker not making many policy commitments

A bill being looked at in the 2023 Georgia legislative session would see the state paying mothers for their unwanted pregnancies that they were forced to carry
Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 2:17 PM EST
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ATLANTA (AP) — New Georgia House speaker Jon Burns says he doesn’t want to pass any laws on abortion while awaiting court action, isn’t interested in fully expanding Medicaid, and leans toward giving Atlanta more time to reduce crime before allowing citizens in its Buckhead area to secede.

But on many more issues, the self-proclaimed “country boy” who has taken the reins of the House after David Ralston’s death is avoiding a public position, saying he wants to see the details of legislation or what his committee chairs think.

Burns, a Republican business owner and timber farmer from southeast Georgia’s Newington, took questions from reporters Thursday on his policy aims for the 2023 legislative session. Burns said his overarching goal is to promote “a better life for Georgians,” but he said he wants to give other people more input into decisions.

“How I like to do it is to sit around a table and have discussions about what’s important to my fellow man, certainly what’s important to other leaders in this state,” Burns said. “And I think when you do that, you bring out the issues that we can make an impact into, and I believe that’s how you’ll see me operate as the speaker of the House.”

That stance is likely to enhance the power of newly reelected Gov. Brian Kemp, whose own policy agenda right now centers around one-time income tax and property tax givebacks, $2,000 raises for public employees and paying full tuition for all HOPE Scholarship recipients for the first time since 2011.

But Burns did stake out a few definable positions. He said he is not interested in the House taking any action on abortion while the state Supreme Court considers Georgia’s 2019 law that bans most abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy. The high court reinstated the ban while it considers an appeal of a lower court ruling that overturned the law.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ruled the state’s abortion ban was invalid because when it was signed into law in 2019, U.S. Supreme Court precedent under Roe. v. Wade and another ruling allowed abortion well past six weeks.

Lawmakers could extinguish the appeal by re-passing the law, but Burns doesn’t want to act for now.

“We’re going to hear from state Supreme Court, and then we’ll move forward on something if we need to,” Burns said.

He said that stance included a bill that failed last year that would have further regulated abortion pills by requiring a woman to get an in-person exam from a Georgia physician before the doctor could prescribe her such pills. It’s part of a push by anti-abortion groups to keep physicians from mailing abortion pills after telemedicine consultations.

Burns said he is also not interested, for now, in the further expansion of the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program beyond Kemp’s much-disputed program that would insure some poor adults who meet work or education requirements. Kemp is seeking funding in next year’s budget for that program to begin operating.

“I believe we need to give Gov. Kemp’s efforts a chance,” Burns said.

When asked about proposal to allow residents of Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead neighborhood to secede and create their own city, Burns praised efforts by Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens to reduce crime, and he said he wanted to give those efforts more time to bear fruit.

With advocates again pushing to legalize sports betting in Georgia, Burns said he wasn’t sure such efforts could move forward without a state constitutional amendment being put to voters. Advocates argue lawmakers could legalize sports betting with a simple law by placing it under the state lottery, because voters decades ago amended the constitution to legalize that form of gambling.

But what exactly Burns will support, and how he will leave his stamp on policymaking, remains elusive. For his part, he said his relationship with the Senate and governor is still in its “honeymoon” phase and also pledged to work with minority Democrats as much as possible.

“We’re going to make sure that we focus on getting the job done for Georgians,” Burns said.