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Rachel Utz, If/When/How Policy Fellow

Up Front Disclaimers 

This is an opinion piece written by me, Rachel, analyzing the legislative session as a first timer. This does not represent everyone at SPARK! I wanted to write something that was more raw and realistic, what things actually seemed like from the inside of the legislative session. 

About Me

I am the If/When/How policy fellow with SPARK. I started in August of 2023 and this was my first time being heavily involved in the legislative process, outside of learning about it. All this means is, I am a baby policy person and I had lots of questions for my mentors. I learned so much during the three months of the session – I had many moments where my face spoke louder than my mouth ever could and I had lots of mini celebrations with my colleagues. 

Let’s get into it! 

My Opinions

I am from Kentucky, so I am used to bad things being passed and having legislators work to strip our rights away. I have always been watching from a distance though. I had never taken meetings with legislators and had never been involved with an organization that was introducing bills and working closely to get sponsorship from legislators. That being said, WHEW! Being up close with these legislators and monitoring the way they moved was… wild? I felt like the session itself went by so slowly but flew by at the same time. The days were long, especially towards the end but the weeks were really short. A lot of times it felt like I was just sitting and watching our rights being debated right in front of me (because I was). 

There were so many bills that I was so shocked by, and many many that I was against. It felt like this session they focused so heavily on squashing trans folx and pushing hate towards the queer community. Many of these bills were actually aimed at trans young people, largely in schools. Of course many of the bills were creating problems out of nothing, many dealt with making trans young people conform and we already know how harmful this is. 

The bill in this category of hate  that stuck out most to me was the one dealing with a bathroom ban, basically saying trans students cannot use the bathroom with the gender that they identify. The committee room was absolutely PACKED full of parents of trans people. These people testified to the harms that restricting bathroom use could cause and the ways in which these will deeply affect their children. This also came around the same time that a trans young person, Nex Benedict, was killed after an altercation with their peers in a school. So the timeliness of this bill was even more profound. It was really beautiful to see parents advocating so fiercely for their kids and taking time from jobs and work and daily tasks to sit up at the Capitol and wait to speak. Because of the amount of people that came to testify in the committee hearing, the chairman of the committee SEVERELY limited the amount of time each person got. I am trying to remember but I think because of this, a few weren’t able to speak at all. While folx were speaking, a few of the legislators wouldn’t even look up and acknowledge them. That really went right through me because you’re sitting here promoting these bills and you can’t even be bothered to look at the person that it will DEEPLY DEEPLY affect. It was just really frustrating but fortunately the bill didn’t pass. While this bill was really frustrating and harmful, it was so cathartic to be around so many passionate people and really just exposed that when we show up for each other, it is really powerful.  

One of the earliest bills of the session was one of the hardest for me to deal with. Criminal justice reform and abolition have always been among the most important topics to me. Early in the session, SB 63 was introduced in the Senate. This bill basically criminalizes bail fund organizations AND imposes even stricter bail requirements on certain offenses. Keep in mind, bail reform really is the next step to creating a better system, at least until we can make abolition a reality. This bill was really crushing for me to see go through. It also just made no sense whatsoever because there was so much evidence presented proving that stricter bail laws do not do anything to help. Imposing these structures only increases recidivism. Incarcerating folx in general we know is bad and can have drastic consequences on a person’s mental and physical health, incarcerating folx even before conviction adds an extra layer of issues. Incarcerating a person because they are not able to pay for their freedom puts them at risk of losing their jobs, strips them of their livelihoods and strips them of their freedom for merely being accused. It was hard to watch the legislators vote for this bill to keep up this weird “tough on crime” persona, despite all of the evidence against this bill. It just really makes me question the intelligence of the people running our state. Like there is obvious and abundant evidence against this bill but just because you have this agenda, it doesn’t matter. Greed is crazy. 

Another bill that was really shocking to me was one that came in extremely late in the session after a terrible event on University of Georgia’s campus. Laken Riley was a nursing student at UGA that was brutally killed while out for a run. She was murdered by a sick and sadistic man and rather than focusing on safety and encouraging men not to kill women (hello?) many Georgia legislators used this horrible moment to capitalize on anti-immigration rhetoric. The conversations were extremely racist, they accused immigrants of being violent and made it seem as if it was inevitable that if someone wasn’t born in America then they would definitely commit a crime. The bill that arose and PASSED because of this is HB 1105. This bill is discriminatory on its face. It forces local sheriff departments to cooperate with ICE and allows police to collect a DNA sample from incarcerated folx if they are ‘suspected’ of being “in the country illegally”. To say this is prejudice would be such an understatement. There may also be road checkpoints to check folx identification. This bill just opens even more of an opportunity for racial profiling and police brutality. It really is sick. And it’s even crazier that they used a brutal murder in order to further their racist policies. It makes it even worse knowing that this bill passed and will likely be signed by the Governor. 

I think one of the craziest aspects of the legislative session comes at the very end. So there’s crossover day and the bills need to move to the next chamber by that day or it’s ‘dead’ for the session, right? WRONG. At the end of the session, legislators can add these amendments to bills that are moving through the process and are likely to pass. Legislators revive their dead bills and attach them to these new bills that have literally nothing to do with each other. AND they don’t even have to get consent from the legislator with the moving bill, they can just add it. There was a bill at the end of session that was a really great bill. It was aimed at addressing the mental health of student athletes and making sure that these students had all of the necessary resources to seek help. This bill had already made it through one chamber and was about to be heard in committee. An hour before the sponsoring legislator was set to present his bill in committee, he noticed all these added amendments on his bill. There was nothing he could do about it. The things that were added were all pertaining to oppressing trans kids and he was firmly against these amendments. It was even more disheartening to see that such a great bill aimed at uplifting the mental health of students was now set at destroying the mental health of trans students. This entire ordeal was so bizarre to me. It makes no sense that legislators are able to add dead bills to any bill that they want to without even getting permission from the sponsoring legislator. In this instance, the legislator was forced to vote against his own bill because it had been altered so greatly. 

It makes me think even more deeply about how the legislators interact with one another. I would find it extremely difficult to walk the halls with someone and wave or even be sitting in the same room as a legislator that truly believes race shouldn’t be talked about in schools or that abortion shouldn’t exist. How do you manage any type of colleague relationship? It’s the same way I feel about public defenders, how do they keep a straight face and deal with prosecutors every day? I feel like I would just be irritated all the time, each time I saw them knowing that they feel so strongly in the opposite way that I do. I don’t know, it just seems like it would be extremely contentious. 

My Overall Thoughts 

It was madness. These legislators look like our neighbors, like just regular people. Some will smile and nod or wave and then turn a corner and go into their chambers and sponsor a bill that would jeopardize our lives. I think that was one of the hardest things for me to comprehend. I have always been a deeply empathetic person, so watching others be so callous was disheartening to say the least. I mean, constituents were crying, really pleading with legislators to look at them and respect their identity and some legislators couldn’t even bother to look up and then subsequently would vote against this pleading person in front of them. The very people they were voted in to protect. There was just such a lack of humanity that was shown. It was also a hard pill to swallow knowing that many of these legislators were working to push laws that others were pushing them to pass. They probably didn’t even hold these values or care about pushing certain bills but did so anyway because their party, or leaders of their party, told them to. 

It was emotionally taxing waking up each day wondering what new bills had dropped or what the committee agendas would hold. It was nice to be in such a strong community so we could talk and process things together. Without that, it would have felt like a never ending cycle of misery. It was so rewarding at the end of the session to celebrate all of our wins. If we weren’t fighting so hard and doing as much organizing as we were, there would be a much larger amount of harmful bills that would have gone through. 

Final Notes

I want to give a special shoutout to everyone that mentored me during this session. Agbo, SPARK’s Policy Director, imparted so much knowledge unto me. She helped me to understand the process, work the ropes, and understand which legislators we could count on. I am so lucky to have been able to work so closely with her and gain so much from her! Roula and Kelli with Amplify and Kris with Feminist were so helpful and important to my learning this session. This work would literally be impossible to do alone. I am so grateful to share this session with them. 

All in all, this rollercoaster of a legislative session just solidified how I already felt about this country. It sucks. BUT there are so many amazing people working extremely hard to make things better. It motivated me to keep going. 

As always, abolish the police, abolish prisons, abolish ICE and let trans folx thrive!