Second of two parts
State Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat, says Republican Gov. Nathan Deal was right to veto “campus carry” and “religious freedom” legislation, actions that have infuriated many in his own party.
The Midway resident touched on a number of controversial topics such as the “fair tax,” “campus carry” and “religious freedom” legislation and Georgia’s refusal to expand Medicaid.
He said he never promised to say only things that his audience would find agreeable. He spoke during the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues breakfast Thursday at La Quinta Inn and Suites in Flemington.
Williams called this controversial bill, passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature but vetoed by fellow Republican Deal, “red meat” legislation.
The bill would have allowed college students to carry guns on campus — a measure universally supported by gun-rights activists and denounced by the colleges themselves.
“Here’s the problem,” Williams said. “You’ve seen, been a part of or heard of frat parties. Now how would you like for your 21-year-old, 20-year-old to be strapped at a frat party where a couple of kegs have already disappeared, where instead of a fistfight, now you’ve got a gunfight? The maturity level is just too low.”
The lawmaker said Deal vetoed the bill “to his credit.”
Williams said he did support the initial bill put forth by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, called the Pastor Protection Act because it would get rid of the “bogeyman.” That bill unanimously passed the House.
But Williams voted against the amended version, which combined the Pastor Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act. The amended bill would have extended the protections for pastors to any individual or business who has a sincerely held religious belief to choose not to serve couples if doing so would violate that belief.
Williams noted how deeply involved in church he is: lifelong churchgoer, Sunday school teacher, chairman of a deacon’s ministry, head of an association of almost 50 churches, on national advisory boards.
“We were not able to find one instance in Georgia where any preacher of any church had to do what they didn’t want to do,” he said.
He went on to say that any church that does not want to perform same-sex marriages should just write that into its bylaws, then, “end of problem.”
Williams noted that the announcement that the Super Bowl was coming to Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta did not come until after Deal vetoed the “religious freedom” legislation. Professional sports leagues and several big businesses had spoken out against the legislation, while a number of faith-based groups had urged Deal to sign the bill.
Williams said he heard an uncomfortable echo in the arguments made by the legislation’s supporters.
“If your religious conviction says you can’t serve everybody, you might need to consider another line of work,” he said. “Because, trust me, here’s the part that wrangles folks. See, I heard that same argument about private business — ‘I’ve got the right to deny whoever I want’ — and that was in 1964 before the civil-rights bill was signed.”
He said Georgia leads the South today because of decisions it did not make that other Southern states did during the civil-rights era. Georgia, for example, did not close public schools in the face of court-ordered desegregation, unlike Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia.
He said the first choice for a large regional airport was Birmingham, Alabama, but that state’s decisions during the civil rights era prompted the change to Atlanta, and the result is Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the busiest in the world.
Williams said Deal will “go down as one of the best governors” in state history because of his veto of the “religious freedom” bill.
“I emailed him and told him, ‘Governor, today you move from a politician to a statesman,’” Williams said of his reaction to Deal’s veto. “And that is quite a transition.”
Williams said the politics around health care “has far superseded the question.” He pointed out that Georgia was offered $30 billion a year to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act with no state cost for the first three years, and then pay about $8 billion to $9 billion a year.
Many hospitals in rural areas that have closed or are on the brink would not be in that position if Georgia had taken the federal government’s offer, he said.
“And so since we don’t get it, our money will go to other states,” Williams said. “Kentucky decided they wanted it. Alabama’s going to get it. So we just sent our money to other states.”
The expansion would have allowed 400,000 Georgians who do not currently qualify for Medicaid to do so, he said.
“And in spite of all that we have done,” Williams said, “it would shock you, how many of our military are on Medicaid, how many of them are on food stamps. It’s tough out here.”
He said he makes it a point to go where the homeless sleep in Atlanta at least once each legislative session. Half of those he encounters, he said, are Vietnam-era veterans “who gave everything they had to this country and left it over there.” Within a few years, he said, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will add to those numbers.
It is not government’s responsibility to give everything, he said, but it should ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met.
“And in spite of what you might think about me,” Williams said, “I got an ‘A’ rating from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce because I believe there is a common ground between business and consumers.”
Williams said taxes, while nobody likes them, are necessary for government services such as infrastructure. Then he gave his views on the “fair tax,” which would replace all existing taxes with a sales tax on retail goods.
“The fair tax, that ain’t fair,” he said. “The fair tax means folks in the last 2 percent get to get a big tax break. If you think the fair tax is, the guy who’s $100 million wealthy who sends someone to shop at Kroger, then all of the sudden, you are on an equal plane with him. Now if we can figure out a way to make everybody fairly pay all their taxes, then that’s different.”
Prison re-entry program
Williams called the Liberty County Re-entry Coalition “an idea whose time has come.” State officials have praised Liberty County’s program as a model for others in Georgia.
Programs like this are possible because of criminal-justice reform spearheaded by Deal along with the General Assembly, which created the legislation that Deal signed encouraging efforts to reduce recidivism as well as to keep low-level offenders out of prison and focus on their rehabilitation instead.
Williams thanked Daisy Jones, the coalition’s director, and Liberty County Board of Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovette for advancing the prison re-entry program. The coalition recently moved into the former Liberty County 911 building.
Williams also appealed to the business community to offer jobs to former inmates trying to reintegrate into society.
The first part of this report, which appeared in Sunday’s Courier, focused on Williams’ thoughts on Fort Stewart, legislation that benefits military spouses, Hinesville’s new shopping center, MidCoast Regional Airport and road improvements.