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Greg Bluestein

Why the champion of the ‘religious liberty’ bill may have cost Columbus millions

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 Josh McKoon, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and author of S.B. 129, the religious liberty bill. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Josh McKoon, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and author of S.B. 129, the religious liberty bill. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com


You’d think state Sen. Josh McKoon would have a big enough fight on his hands as one of the most vocal supporters of the just-vetoed “religious liberty” legislation.

But now the Columbus Republican is in an escalating war of words with a fellow west Georgia GOPer and his hometown newspaper over comments that his advocacy for that controversial legislation cost Columbus State University and the nearby National Infantry Museum millions of dollars in funding.

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer led its must-read story on the fallout this week with this explosive quote from state Rep. Richard Smith:

“You can only stick a stick in somebody’s eye so long before enough is enough,” Smith told the newspaper. “They are going to give it to somebody who has been supportive.”

He added: “The governor and his chief of staff made it clear they were not giving any money and the reason was Sen. McKoon.”

Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan declined to comment Tuesday on Smith’s assertion. McKoon, meanwhile, had a more fiery response, saying it “sounds to me like Richard feels like he got thrown under the bus last week and now he thinks it’s my turn.”

He kicked it up a notch Tuesday night in remarks to our AJC colleague Laura Diaz. McKoon said that Smith should ask the U.S. Attorney’s Office to open an investigation into Deal if his comments are true. 

“Anyone who is suggesting budgeting decisions are being made to punish a legislator who wouldn’t do what they’re told – I’d be very disturbed by that,” he said. 

But wait, there’s more. Back to the story:

McKoon had issues with Ralston’s legislative counsel Terry Chastain during the session and openly called for the speaker to fire his top lawyer. McKoon said Chastain approached him during the session in front of Senate pages and cursed and yelled at him, acting in an unprofessional manner. This incident happened before Smith’s meeting with the speaker’s chief of staff, Smith said.

Asked if this was specifically about McKoon, Ralston was careful with his words.

“I am not going to name names, but I know there are members of the legislative delegation who come to the Capitol to help the community and there are some who come to the Capitol and refuse to pull together with other members of the delegation and they are obstacles to getting things done,” Ralston said by phone. “You have two of the finest members in the General Assembly in Richard Smith and Calvin Smyre. Richard is a rock.”

McKoon later went on Twitter to call the Ledger-Enquirer’s story “pure fiction.”

For McKoon, a grass-roots Republican star with likely statewide ambition, the fight with Smith and the delegation could play into his image as an outsider unwilling to abandon his legislation for his funding or prestige. More than a few Capitol observers hold that, in the long run, McKoon is better off losing the “religious liberty” fight this year so he can revive it next year (and the year after that, and the year after that if need be …) as a prelude to a run for higher office.

Then again, critics were quick to contend that his fight with Smith, who is well-liked in the House, shows there’s a difference between standing up for principles and antagonizing powerful politicians. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is the longest-serving  member of the House (and one of its most respected members), said McKoon is doing the latter.

“There are consequences to your actions,” he told the newspaper.

And then there’s this from Ryan, Deal’s spokeswoman. Maybe we’re reading too much into it. But still.