Discussion of the fetal heartbeat bill passed by the Georgia General Assembly in late March permeated the more than 90-minute meeting of the Oconee County Republican Party on Monday.
Scott Hilton, director of implementation for the Georgians First Commission, brought up the bill in his keynote address to 38 people assembled at the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce meeting room in Watkinsville.
Steven Strickland, newly elected chair of the Oconee County Republican Party, congratulated Cowsert and representatives Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower for their votes to pass the bill. All three are Republicans.
Strickland then asked Wiedower to talk about the vote during the panel discussion by the three Oconee County legislators of the recently-completed session.
Wiedower said he received hundreds of phone calls about the bill before the vote and thousands of emails and listened to what he called “really tough conversations” leading up to the March 29 vote.
“It did take a lot of courage to hit the button to reflect my vote,” Wiedower said.
The vote on the bill will continue to be “a hot topic,” Wiedower said, and added that he thought the vote “clouded” the success of the General Assembly on other issues such as healthcare, broadband, and cannabis oil.
In fact, abortion is one of the topics that Democratic and Republican students from Oconee County High School and North Oconee High School will debate from 4 to 6 p.m. today at the same auditorium of the Chamber of Commerce in Watkinsville.
When Hilton mentioned the anti-abortion heartbeat bill, a mild applause followed.
|Strickland, Wiedower, Gaines, Cowsert|
When Strickland congratulated the delegation for passing the bill, he asked for applause again.
This time the response was more enthusiastic, but it was not universal.
The Senate and the House voted largely along party lines on the bill, officially HB 481 and called the Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act. Gov. Brian Kemp has not yet signed the bill.
The vote in the Senate was 34 to 18. The bill needed 29 votes to pass.
The vote in the House was 92 to 78. The bill needed 91 votes to pass.
Gaines from House District 117 and Wiedower from House District 119 defeated Democrats who held their seats in the November election, so their votes created the margin for passage of the bill.
The bill states that “It shall be the policy of the State of Georgia to recognize unborn children as natural persons” and says that no abortion is allowed if an “unborn child” has “a detectable human heartbeat.”
The bill allows for the abortion of the “natural person” if it “is the result of rape or incest in which an official police report has been filed alleging the offense of rape or incest,” a “medical emergency” exists, or a physician determines that “the pregnancy is medically futile.”
Strickland used an unusual format for the legislative panel with the Oconee County delegation.
Strickland asked questions he had prepared on a number of topics, but he directed a given question to only one of the delegates, with a couple of exceptions.
Audience members were not allowed to speak until the very end, when Strickland allowed a few questions.
The first question from Strickland was directed at Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents the 46th Senate District, in which all of Oconee County Falls.
Cowsert On Accomplishments
Strickland asked Cowsert what was different this session, since he had not been re-elected as Senate Majority Leader.
“The heartbeat bill got a lot of attention, a lot of press,” Cowsert acknowledged, but he said he was happy the legislature had fully funded education based on the state formula and that it had given Gov. Kemp the ability to apply to the federal government for waivers on Medicaid expansion.
Cowsert said the Medicaid waiver will allow the state “to do these things a Georgia way, a way we can afford, and will help get healthcare to all Georgians.”
Cowsert also cited as accomplishments legislation he said provide assistance to rural healthcare and for broadband expansion.
Question For Wiedower And Gaines
Strickland asked both Wiedower and Gaines to talk about their experiences as first-time members of the House and to identify their biggest accomplishment.
“I could not be more honored to be down there and just humbled by the support I’ve had from the district,” Wiedower said. The 119th House District is split between Oconee and Clarke counties.
Wiedower said he was proud of two successful bills that he had authored, House Bill 266 revising the deduction from income for contributions to savings trust accounts, and House Bill 392, providing expense allowance and travel cost reimbursement for members of the Board of Public Safety.
“It really was really a positive first year and really humbling in terms of how much we were able to accomplish,” Gaines said. The 117th House District includes parts of Clarke, Oconee, Barrow and Jackson counties.
Gaines cited as a personal accomplishment the passage of House Bill 217, which he had authored.
The bill provides that employees and agents of syringe services programs are not subject to offenses relating to hypodermic syringes and needles.
The bill will “save lives and save money for our state,” Gaines said.
He also mentioned funding in the state budget for the University of Georgia and for the Watkinsville Library expansion as accomplishments.
Wiedower On Heartbeat Bill
“So, Marcus, what does it mean for Georgians?” Strickland asked Wiedower when he turned to the heartbeat bill. “Describe the weight of the room when you cast your vote about a month ago.”
“You know, it was heavy. It was heavy. That is not a vote that you take light heartedly,” Wiedower responded. “That is not a vote that you take without listening to literally hundreds of phone calls.”
Wiedower said “we spent a lot of time listening to all sides. I had some really, really tough, really tough conversations.”
“So it was a long day, very emotional testimony on all sides,” Wiedower said. “And it did, it did take, a lot of courage to hit the button to reflect my vote.”
“I think that, you know, we made a statement of where we stand on that,” Wiedower said. “I don’t back away from being pro-life and proud to be that.”
Wiedower said he “Got my first death threat” and had been in touch with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as a result.
“And what it means for Georgia is the kind of fight is on, if you will,” Wiedower said. “We all know it’s not going to end here. It’s a challenge to Roe v. Wade. And we’ll see where that takes us.”
Wiedower said that he “hated” that the other work of the General assemble “is clouded” by the vote on the heartbeat bill.
Wiedower said that he did not want to “let that be the subject that drives this session because we did a lot of really great things.”
“We need to focus on the things that we did accomplish that are really, really good,” Wiedower said.
Strickland asked questions on a variety of other topics, with a heavy emphasis on technology and broadband. Strickland works in the telecommunications industry.
In response to a question directed at him about House Bill 302, which attempted to restrict local governments from regulating design aspects of the housing industry, Wiedower said the bill was “terribly written from the outset” and he would await further developments on the bill.
Gaines, responding to a question about the next session, said, “You all in this room helped us get elected last year.”
“My hope is that we’ve shown why these local elections are so important,” Gaines said. “I think you can look at the records of, the realities of last year versus this year. What was accomplished for our area, and for our state.
“We had good, conservative leadership in these seats,” he said.
Gaines said he wants to work on tax reform in the 2020 session with the goal of reducing the state income tax.
Hilton On Small Businesses
Hilton was the first speaker on Monday. He is the director of implementation for the Georgians First Commission, an 18-member group of small business owners that was created by executive order two months ago by Gov. Kemp to support small businesses.
“We are the number one state for big business, which is great, but we are not always the best state for small business,” Hilton said.
“Rather than go out and attract that next Amazon from Seattle, I want to build it right here in Georgia,” Hilton said. “We can build the next Amazon. We can build the next Apple, right here in our home state.”
Hilton said his group was going to look at occupational licensing in the state.
“One of the craziest things that I think I’ve found so far is that we require librarians in Georgia to have licenses,” Hilton said. “I’ve never heard of anybody that’s died of a bad librarian.”
“It’s things like that are barriers to, and hurt frankly you and I,” Hilton said.
Shafer Seeking State Chairmanship
Shafer, who followed Hilton as speaker, is a candidate for the state Republican chair position when the party meets May 17 and 18 in Savannah.
Shafer was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. He lost the primary runoff in July of 2018 after advancing from the primary in May.
“I think the Republican Party here in Georgia is in trouble,” Shafer said on Monday.
“The statewide margins have narrowed to a degree that is very uncomfortable,” Shafer said. “We are losing seats that we should not lose in the suburbs.”
“We’ve acted almost as if the Republican majority is something that’s just going to last forever on its own,” Shafer said.
“There’s an estrangement that’s crept into the party between the activist base and the donor base and in some cases between the party itself and our candidates and elected officials,” he added.
In the past, Shafer said, the Democrats in Georgia were centrists or even conservatives.
“The Democrats who are trying to replace us are not center right, are not centrists. They’re radical leftists, borderline Marxists. You might even say not even borderline Marxists,” Shafer said.
“And they’ve taken aim at the very soul of what we think is great about America,” Shafer said. “In fact, it’s pretty clear they don’t think there is anything great about America. It is time for us to pull together.”
The debate today between representatives of the Teen Republicans and Young Democrats at the county’s two high schools will focus on guns, immigration, healthcare, including abortion, and the environmental, according to Brittany Clark.
Clark is a senior at North Oconee High School and the president of the school’s Teen Republicans.
Kevin Guthas, guidance counselor at Oconee County High School, will serve as the moderator.
Clarke said that Guthas will ask questions under the four topic areas and the two “sides will express their ideas up to 10 minutes per question,” Clark told me in an email exchange this week.
Each topic should be run about 30 minutes, Clark said.
The Oconee Chamber of Commerce is letting the students use the facilities for free because it is a school event, Clark said.
The meeting, at the Chamber’s office, 55 Nancy Drive in Watkinsville, is open to the public.
The video below is of the entire meeting of the Oconee County Republican Committee on April 22.
Strickland introduced Hilton at 5:18 in the video.
He introduced Shafter at 18:08 in the video.
Strickland introduced the panel at 27:49 in the video.