Top 6 issues and government actions that most impacted Georgians in 2022

What a year. 

We were blindsided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn abortion rights, we’re still getting over an exhaustive round of midterm elections, and we’re grappling with yet more hospital closings. Crime has spiked in some communities, and who knows who’s packing a handgun these days? It’s enough to send some folks to a therapist, if one can be found (fortunately, there’s a legislative remedy for that).

Here’s a look at the issues that most impacted the lives of Georgians statewide this year:

1. Abortion ban

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark legislation that protected people’s rights to abortions for nearly half a century. The controversial ruling has triggered intense legal battles in Georgia over the state’s  “Heartbeat Bill,” which bans doctors from performing abortions on patients once a heartbeat is detected usually about six weeks pregnant, with exceptions for rape, incest, or inviability of the fetus. 

Passed in April 2019, the law was ruled unconstitutional in July 2020 until that decision was reversed on July 20 of this year. The law has since see-sawed back and forth in court. The abortion ban was in place until this past Nov. 14 when a Fulton County Superior Court judge lifted it; a week later, the Georgia Supreme Court reinstated the ban until it makes a final decision.

During the week the ban was lifted, Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta “saw an average of  30 to 35 patients each of those days,” Kwajelyn Jackson, the center’s executive director, told State Affairs. “That's about double what we’ve been seeing under the six-week ban.” Feminist Women is one of the plaintiffs in the legal fight against the state heartbeat bill.

For years the anti-abortion movement has worked relentlessly to get Roe v. Wade overturned, so the Supreme Court decision was,  by all accounts,  a moment of victory and, many said, an opportunity to step up and help those women making the difficult decision to have an unwanted child. 

“We realize that more services are going to have to be provided. … If you're going to be pro-life, you have to be pro-life about everything,” said Martha Zoller, a Georgia Life Alliance board member who welcomed the SCOTUS decision because it puts the issue squarely in the hands of states

“ We want the states to be the ones to make the decision so that it's more reflective of the values of the state. Do you want nine Supreme Court justices or do you want state legislators making those decisions? Who’s closer to the people?” she said.

In the meantime, Georgia’s law is impacting thousands who are forced to travel out of state to get abortions, Jackson said, adding, “For people who don't think this is an issue that affects them, it may just not have affected them yet. There certainly may be people in their lives who they love and care for, for whom this is a very serious concern. A lot of times, we don't think about our reproductive and bodily autonomy until we're in a crisis situation.

Read what other Georgians had to say about the abortion ban here and here.

2. Costly elections

Perhaps the two most-watched races in America during the 2022 midterm election occurred in Georgia. If they weren’t, they certainly were among the most expensive and exhaustive. 

Gov. Brian Kemp and his challenger Stacey Abrams, the darling of the Democratic Party, raised more than $250 million combined in their rematch and collectively achieved a record-setting turnout for a midterm election among Georgia voters. Abrams’s second failed attempt to become Georgia’s governor has left her $1 million in debt, according to media reports.

The governor’s race doesn’t begin to compare to the caustic U.S. Senate race between incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Their battle cost more than $400 million combined —  the most expensive race in the nation during the 2022 midterm elections, according to OpenSecrets.org. That data was through November and does not include what was spent during the Warnock/Walker runoff race.

The mind-numbing spending has some — including Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — calling for reforms, most notably an end to general election runoffs.  Georgia and Louisiana are the only two states to hold runoffs in a general election if no candidate gets 50% of the vote. The system is a holdover from Jim Crow laws that sought to curtail the political power of Black voters.

The runoff is estimated to have cost taxpayers over $10 million in metro Atlanta alone and millions more around the state, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

Since the start of 2020, $1.4 billion has been spent on just four races in Georgia: Two election bids each for the U.S. Senate and the governor’s mansion, according to a New York Times analysis.

3. Guns, gangs and crime

While violent crime, property crime, and crime overall are down statewide, continuing a 10-year trend, gang violence, illegal drug trade and juvenile crime continued to spike in some urban and rural areas.

The impact of crime was felt nowhere more than in Atlanta, where 162 homicides reported as of mid-December have made it the most murderous year since 1996. Two of the most horrific cases included two boys, ages 12 and 15,  gunned down by three teens on the 17th Street bridge in Midtown, and the stabbing death of a 77-year-old woman by a young man apparently intent on stealing her car in an affluent northwest Atlanta neighborhood. 

Overall, the 29-county metro Atlanta area is the site of about 60% of all major crimes in the state. Violent crime in Savannah so far this year is up 11% over 2021,  including more rapes, street robberies and aggravated assaults with guns.

Gang activity is fueling the drug trade, human trafficking and violent crime in many cities and rural areas across the state, according to Attorney General Chris Carr.   

This year the state expanded its Gang Task Force led by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to several counties in middle Georgia and gave additional powers to the attorney general to investigate and prosecute gang-related crime. 

In August, one of the state’s most notable crimes that drew national attention was resolved with the sentencing of the three men who murdered 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick.

Then, in November, just days before the midterm election,  Carr announced the indictment of 17 alleged members of the 183 Gangster Bloods, whose alleged crimes include racketeering, murder, fentanyl trafficking and a variety of weapons-related offenses.

The issue of crime and guns also served as political ammunition throughout the year, as Republican Gov. Brian Kemp touted his support for the “constitutional carry” law signed in April, which allows Georgians to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. Abrams, meanwhile, cited the law for an uptick in violent crime and pledged to push for red flag laws for gun owners. 

4. Hospital closings and renewed debate over Medicaid

The closing of the Atlanta Medical Center (AMC) in November created a crisis of care still reverberating throughout the indigent communities that have depended on the hospital for more than 100 years, as well as for much of the medical community in Georgia. It was also a sign of the times for the state’s ailing health care sector, where at least 10 hospitals have closed over the last decade. 

The loss of AMC, a 460-bed nonprofit hospital run by  Marietta-based Wellstar Health Systems, as well as related doctors’ offices and medical services located on its two-square-block campus, left Atlanta with only one Level 1 trauma center in the city, and tens of thousands of poor and working class people with nowhere to go for primary and specialty care. 

Over the past 10 years, at least eight rural hospitals in Georgia have closed. However, this week, Wellstar announced its intent to partner with Augusta University Health System to create an expanded teaching hospital at Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. 

The recent hospital closures are reigniting debate over whether the governor should expand Medicaid, which would allow Georgia to access billions in federal funds to help support struggling hospitals, and also to extend Medicaid coverage to an estimated 500,000 Georgians who lack affordable medical coverage. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that hospital officials across the state say that inaction on Medicaid expansion has “hurt their bottom lines because they still treat high numbers of uninsured patients, many of whom cannot pay for treatment.”

While Kemp earlier this year signed a bill approving a one-year-only extension of Medicaid coverage for maternity care for an estimated 60,000 women, and is planning to launch a limited Medicaid expansion next year that will include a controversial work requirement for recipients, Georgia remains one of just 12 states that hasn’t fully expanded Medicaid.

5. Mental health parity

The General Assembly voted unanimously to pass the Mental Health Parity Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that obligates the state to enforce rules that insurers cover mental health issues the same as they do physical illnesses. 

The law will help more Georgians access affordable mental health and substance abuse treatment. Insurance companies can no longer arbitrarily decide how many visits to a therapist or psychiatrist a patient suffering from anxiety or addiction may have; such decisions will now be driven by mental health professionals who will abide by existing standards of care and what they deem is “medically necessary” for their patients.

Over time, the law is expected to address chronic and critical shortages in the mental health workforce. It ensures equity in reimbursement of fees to mental health providers, and also provides service-cancelable loans to residents who are enrolled in education and training programs to become mental health and substance abuse professionals.

Among many highlights in the monumental act: It relaxes Georgia’s standard for involuntary commitment by allowing law enforcement officers to evaluate and transport people having a mental health crisis to the ER (instead of taking them to jail, or doing nothing).  It also provides funding to better train police and peace officers in how to intervene in a mental health crisis.

6. Tax breaks galore

With inflation running high, fears about the economy, and a looming recession among the top concerns for Georgians, tax relief was the remedy chosen by the governor.

Kemp gave Georgians billions in tax breaks and handouts using federal and state money. 

The governor first issued  $1.1 billion of state income tax refunds in the form of checks ranging from $250 to $500 sent to most Georgians. He also gave $350 cash cards to Georgians on public assistance, although there was lots of criticism early on about being able to use the cards, but that has since been resolved.  

Throughout the year, Kemp issued executive orders to suspend the state fuel tax. The fuel tax holiday, which took effect in March and runs through Jan. 10, has cost the state approximately $1 billion in revenue. The average Georgian saved $12 to $15 a  month on gas, while some diesel consumers saved hundreds of dollars each month.

Last spring, the Legislature also enacted a historic income tax cut proposed by the governor to move Georgia from a progressive income tax with a top rate of 5.75% to a flat 4.99% income tax, to be phased in by 2029. 

And he’s not done doling out cash just yet. In a speech in Athens to lawmakers early this month, Kemp pledged another $2 billion in income and property tax breaks for 2023.

What did you think were the top political stories of 2022 in Georgia? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @LVJOYNER or at [email protected], and Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected]

Twitter @STATEAFFAIRSGA

Facebook @STATEAFFAIRSUS

LinkedIn  @STATEAFFAIRS

Header image: Speaker David Ralston and members of the Georgia General Assembly at the bill signing for HB 1013 on April 4, 2022. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

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