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Georgia House skips Senate bills in tussle over hate crime penalties
ATLANTA, GA - JUNE 15: Protesters gather at the Georgia State Capitol during the March On Georgia, organized by NAACP, on June 15, 2020 in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The march comes in response to the police killing of Rayshard Brooks outside an Atlanta Wendy's restaurant on June 12. (Photo by Dustin Chambers/Getty Images)

ATLANTA (AP) — A top lieutenant of Georgia's House speaker is signaling that the lower chamber may blockade Senate bills unless the Senate acts on a bill to increase state criminal penalties on hate crimes.

House Rules Chairman Richard Smith, a Columbus Republican, abruptly adjourned Tuesday's rules committee without putting any bills before the full House to consider, saying it “is becoming an embarrassment to the state” that a Senate committee has yet to consider House Bill 426, a hate crimes penalty bill that the House passed in March 2019.

“Based on my thoughts, we are morally and legally required to pass two bills,” Smith said. "The first one we're legally required to pass is the budget. The second one that we're morally required to pass is the hate crimes bill. Meeting's adjourned.”

Smith's move comes a day after House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, gave a speech to the House in which he called the February slaying of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick “an act of evil that defied belief" and again called on senators to act on the measure. Arbery was a black man shot while running through a neighborhood.

“We later learned that the shooter stood over his body as his life ebbed away and pronounced his benediction with the vilest of racial slurs," Ralston said. "Members of this body, that is hate.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, has said he wants to consider the bill, but make changes. One would be to make it easier for victims of hate crimes to bring civil lawsuits.

The Rules committees of Georgia's House and Senate are key gatekeepers, making up the list of what legislation each chamber will consider. Tuesday's move will leave only nine business days for the House to consider legislation.

“Just because it passed the Senate and made it through your committee does not mean it has to get out,” Smith said Tuesday.

Of course, there weren't very many bills to choose from. Smith said only four Senate bills had been passed by committees and were eligible to go before the full House, urging committee chairs to get to work.

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