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Amazon HQ2 may curb passage of conservative laws in Georgia

| Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, 12:18 p.m.
Georgia House speaker David Ralston expresses disappointment in the Senate during comments to the media after the Senate failed to act on a house adoption bill in Atlanta. Feb. 1, 2018.
Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Georgia House speaker David Ralston expresses disappointment in the Senate during comments to the media after the Senate failed to act on a house adoption bill in Atlanta. Feb. 1, 2018.

ATLANTA — With Atlanta among the 20 cities on the short list to become the home of Amazon's second headquarters, the corporate giant's name has become a contentious rallying cry inside the conservative Georgia Capitol.

Lawmakers and lobbyists in Georgia are viewing various pieces of legislation through the lens of how they will affect the city's chances of winning Amazon's business — and the estimated 50,000 jobs expected to be generated by the new headquarters.

Two flashpoints have been a “religious liberties” bill — viewed by some as anti-LGBT — as well as a trio of bills that opponents have dubbed “adios Amazon” because they're related to immigration issues.

“It's putting a target on our back,” Democratic Rep. Bee Nguyen said of the immigration-related bills, which she said would draw unnecessary scrutiny from the Amazon selection committee.

Amazon has yet to publicly release specific criteria it will use to judge the 20 finalist cities, but its initial call for proposals lists “Cultural Community Fit” as a priority, noting it requires a community with a “diverse population.” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is a big-time donor to pro-LGBT causes and has given large amounts of money to fund scholarships for young immigrants.

The potential cost of legislation perceived to be discriminatory can be huge. North Carolina faced months of scrutiny and criticism after the passage of its “bathroom bill,” which effectively blocked the city of Charlotte from allowing transgender people to use restrooms aligned with their gender identity. An Associated Press analysis revealed backlash to the law would cost the state an estimated $3.76 billion over 12 years in business lost from Paypal, the NBA, Adidas, Deutsche Bank and other companies and organizations scuttling planned projects and events in the state.

But some lawmakers are skeptical that state legislation would have any effect on Amazon's selection.

“It is a smart tactic to create this boogeyman of, ‘Oh, we are going to lose out on economic development,'” Republican Sen. Josh McKoon said. He said there was “zero evidence” that conservative policies make a state less likely to attract employers like Amazon and that state legislators should not be swayed by out-of-state companies that may not share the same values as the people of Georgia.

“Perhaps we should just have their board of directors come down and sit in our seats in the House and Senate,” McKoon said sarcastically.

McKoon is a sponsor of a resolution that would prevent the state government from issuing written driving tests and other official documents in any language other than English. That is one of three measures that opponents have dubbed “adios Amazon” legislation. The other two measures would require a special driver's license for non-U.S. citizens and would tax out-of-state wire transfers, which are widely used by immigrants.

McKoon is also a supporter of another piece of controversial legislation that some people worry could derail Atlanta's bid: a “religious liberties” bill that opponents say would allow individuals to deny services to LGBT people based on their religious convictions.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a similar measure in 2016 after pressure from corporate giants including Coca-Cola, a major employer based in Atlanta. But conservative legislators are pushing the measure forward again this year.

The governor's veto highlights another important aspect of the Amazon debate: It's not just Republican vs. Democrat.

In the run-up to November's elections, conservative Republican legislators are pushing hot-button social issues that can win votes in rural parts of the state. But the party's more centrist, business-friendly arm is worried that could turn off Amazon by seeming to be anti-immigrant or anti-LGBT.

Republican Sen. Michael Williams, who is running for governor, said in a statement to The Associated Press that he supported the “religious liberties” bill because his constituents support the measure. “I've made it clear that I'm not beholden to the establishment, Party leadership or big corporate,” Williams said.

But Republican House Speaker David Ralston told WABE Radio that he was interested in “growing economic opportunity for every part of Georgia” and that legislation such as the “religious liberties” bill didn't fit into that plan.

“To the extent that any debate ... creates headwinds for that, then I don't have any interest in doing that, frankly,” he said.

William Hatcher, associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Augusta University, said that many of the bills being introduced will appeal to conservative voters, even if they don't have much chance of becoming law. “There is a lot of symbolic politics going on,” Hatcher said.

“It really represents the conflict you have in the Republican party nationwide, but especially in a number of Southern states ... between more economic conservatives and more social-religious conservatives,” he said.

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