Northwest Georgia Republicans continue clash over the state’s mental health care system

Republican state House members from Northwest Georgia are pushing back on a resolution from the 14th District GOP convention "admonishing" the lawmakers for supporting General Assembly legislation aimed at improving access to mental health care in the Peach State.

The 14th district is made up of the Northwest Georgia counties of Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Floyd, Gordon, Murray, Polk, Walker and a portion of both Cobb and Paulding counties.

Along with expressing disappointment toward 11 District 14 House members who voted for the bill, the resolution also expressed gratitude to Mitchell Horner, R-Ringgold, for voting against it. House Bill 520 passed the state House but was tabled in the Senate during the Georgia Assembly's legislative session that ended March 29.

Denise Burns, chairwoman of the District 14 Republican Party, said in a written statement she was disappointed that state Reps. Steven Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, and Mike Cameron, R-Rossville, two lawmakers mentioned in the resolution, decided to leave the convention rather than stay and defend their votes.

"They both maintain that, according to their understanding of the bill, the resolution contained inflammatory falsehoods about the bill," she said. "And yet instead of addressing the falsehoods, they withdrew from all discussion and allowed the convention body to pass something they see as untrue."

Resolutions are nonbinding statements voted on by participants of the District 14 Republican Party convention held at the end of last month in Trion, Georgia. About 245 was the highest number of people voting at the convention, Burns said, and about 200 stayed t0 vote on the 10 resolutions passed.

The resolution said the mental health legislation is immoral and socialistic for expanding Medicaid, violates the principal of individual responsibility by forgiving student loans for some health care workers, includes federal funding for abortions and gender identity procedures and violates due process by allowing up to a 90-day detainment for those awaiting mental health competency testing.

The measure expanding on last year's Mental Health Parity Act, would address data sharing among state agencies, study existing mental health care resources and expand a loan forgiveness program for some health care workers.

(READ MORE: A Georgia bill to increase funding for mental health failed to pass in the Senate. What happened and what's next?)

If the state accepts federal money in the expansion of Medicare/Medicaid, Burns said in defense of the resolution, state officials will be required to accept federal policies regarding abortion and gender-affirming care. And federal law would take primacy over recent state laws regarding the practices, she said.

Cameron said that isn't factual. The 11 legislators are conservatives who are pro-life and outlawed gender-affirming care for minors, Cameron said, and wouldn't support legislation allowing those procedures.

The representatives supporting the mental health care bill aren't big government people, he said, they're just trying to help their neighbors. HB 520 will be revisited by the state Senate when the 2024 session begins in January, he said.

"The main thing is: We've got to do something about mental health in Georgia," Cameron said in a phone interview. "If we don't, it's going to overtake us. The substance abuse problems with fentanyl, and the sheriff's departments aren't equipped."

Cameron said he works a lot with the Dade County Sheriff's Office, and its jails are full of people who need mental health care treatment. Other sheriff's offices in Northwest Georgia are having the same problem, he said, because the 30 North Georgia counties only have 17 beds for mental health treatment.

In his reading of the bill, Tarvin said he couldn't find any of the resolution's accusations to be accurate but added he needs to learn more about how receiving federal grants relates to abortion and gender-affirming care. He said he was open to more discussion with critics.

Cameron said the resolution conflict is a mess and tearing the party apart.

"It was a second class hit job from a bunch of extremists," Cameron said about the resolution. "That's exactly what it was."

Critics waited until the district convention to express their concern about the bill, Cameron said, instead of having a discussion while the legislation was being considered by the General Assembly. Both he and Tarvin walked out of the convention, he said, because he didn't want to cause a scene.

Tarvin said in a phone interview that he votes based on what's constitutional and will help the people of Georgia rather than "changing with every blowing wind." He said he left the convention because he didn't want to influence a debate that was about himself, and the voters can decide if they want him to serve them in the General Assembly.

But Tarvin said he received more encouragement to vote yea than nay on HB 520.

(READ MORE: New Northwest Georgia elected officials speak on values, plans for legislative session)

Cameron said he is open to talking with anyone about legislation because there are points he may miss. He said he only heard one complaint about the bill, but the caller couldn't cite their concern in the legislation.

Sandi Marcus, executive director and founder of the Georgia Coalition for Vaccine Choice, said by phone that her organization ran a campaign that organized thousands of voters to contact to their representatives and ask them to vote against HB 520. A resident of Bartow County, she said coalition records show Cameron received 15 emails from the lawmaker's constituents through the organization's campaign.

In response, Cameron said he generally doesn't see emails from some automated advocacy campaigns and thinks those emails may be going to his junk folder.

Cameron said the criticism is coming from the Georgia Republican Assembly, a small government, conservative organization that helped lawmakers like Horner and state Sen. Colton Moore, R-Trenton, win in the May 2022 Republican primary. Burns and Jackie Harling, who ran against Cameron in last year's primary, are members of the group. Cameron won 75.9% of the primary vote, defeating Harling, who lives on Lookout Mountain in Georgia.

Cameron said in an email that Gov. Brian Kemp and lawmakers will stand by their legislation regarding abortion and gender-affirming care regardless of the funding source for mental health care treatment.

Harling is the recently elected chairwoman of the Walker County Republican Party, and she said the District 14 GOP convention was a wonderful gathering of like-minded, patriotic people open to spirited debate.

(READ MORE: Catoosa County Republican Party convention attendees debate school choice)

The mental health care bill gives the government too much power, Harling said in a phone call, and she was glad it was defeated.

She agreed mental health is a problem in Georgia jails, but solving that problem could be simple — but more provisions were unnecessarily added by politicians. It's another example of elected officials trying to control people, she said.

Dismissing concerns from freedom advocates by saying they're in pre-existing Georgia code isn't an excuse, Harling said, because legislation can and should be updated when needed.

Harling said she was disappointed Tarvin and Cameron left the convention and also that the representatives — who were also county delegates — weren't there to vote on other district business. Anyone had a chance to debate the resolution, she said, but no one stood up.

"What I would've liked to see would have been them being courageous in the face of criticism and getting up and picking up a microphone and stating their case and explaining to us why they voted the way they did," Harling said.

On top of a well-run convention, Harling said the food was excellent and the speakers were telling truths rarely heard. Since her two state representatives left the convention early, Harling said she took their lunches with her to eat later.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at or 423-757-6659.