Biggest issues still await lawmakers

Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin, Kristina Torres, Jeremy Redmon, Chris Joyner, Janel Davis and Rhonda Cook contributed to this article.

As the home stretch looms for the Georgia Legislature’s final day in the 2013-2014 session Thursday, some of the biggest issues remain up in the air.

The House and Senate have separately advanced proposals to legalize a medical form of marijuana (House Bill 885), phase in a privatization of state foster care and adoption (HB 914), and expand rights for people who want to carry guns in churches or other places. But they have not agreed on details or voted on final passage of those bills.

They face a deadline of midnight. Any bills not passed by then go back to square one next year.

Scores of bills face the lawmakers. Some already passed the General Assembly earlier in the day:

  • The Legislature gave final approval to House Bill 933, which makes permanent a multi-million dollar tax break for luxury jetmakers such as Gulfstream. It's a tax exemption that had been temporary, on parts and equipment used to repair and maintain aircraft registered outside of Georgia. It awaits Gov. Nathan Deal's signature to become law.
  • So does a bill for HOPE grants to pay full tuition for the top students at technical colleges (HB 697).

And House Bill 837, a bill that critics of the private probation industry say would protect its worst practices. Advocates say it would protect competition and private information. That approval leaves only the governor’s signature for it to become law.

Other bills were still in negotiations, but seemed to have momentum.

  • A bill that would require recipients of welfare and food stamps to submit to drug tests and pay for them passed the Senate 29-22 following a lengthy and heated debate. The tests could be triggered if the recipient had previously applied for a job with drug testing, or if state workers suspected the recipient's "demeanor." The proposal, House Bill 772, has already passed the House but has been slightly changed, so the two chambers will have to agree on the same language to head toward the governor for a signature. (Update: this won final passage shortly after 8 p.m.)
  • House Bill 885, which would legalize a form of medical marijuana, passed the Senate but with an autism insurance mandate attached. The House has thus far rejected the autism language.
  • House Bill 264 and HB 265 would lift for three more years a restriction on how MARTA spends its money, and allow Clayton County to hold a referendum on joining MARTA. The bills overwhelmingly passed the House, but would have to head back to the Senate to hash out differences.

    Thursday is Day 40 this year, the final deadline of the two-year legislative session. The last session usually goes to midnight, and some of the state’s most consequential legislation is passed in a blur of activity in the final hours or minutes, by lawmakers bleary with hours of activity.

    You can follow the action yourself on the Legislature's live video feeds, here for the House and here for the Senate.

    Gov. Deal made the traditional Day 40 visit to the House earlier in the day to compliment their cooperation throughout the year, and arrived in the Senate around 7 p.m. for a similar address.

    Among bills still under consideration, the expansion of gun rights, including the right to carry guns into churches, was a big cause of buzz. Senators and representatives were arguing behind the scenes about whether that right should be automatic with the burden on a church to opt out; and also whether to revive the issue of allowing guns on university campuses.

    The day began with characteristic flair for special days in the Legislature. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston each gaveled their chambers to order with an extra tinge of ceremony and flash

    “Welcome to the 40th Day!” Cagle said as he brought the Senate to order.

    It began as a nostalgic day for legislators who are leaving their seats after today, some of them trying to win higher office.

    Rep. Edward Lindsey, a Republican of Atlanta, leaned against a wall just outside the House chamber in the throng of lobbyists and visitors. Lindsey, who is running for Congress, said he began the day with a drive through his whole district, just to remember the last 10 years.

    He had a saying about the course of issues coming at lawmakers through the 40-day session. “We start with a babbling brook on day one,” he said. “By day 30 it becomes the Chattahoochee River. By day 40 we’re going over Tallulah Falls in a barrel.”

    Jason Carter, a Decatur Democrat and candidate for governor, said serving in the Senate was sometimes reminiscent of a country western song that goes “lovin’ you is like frying bacon nekkid.” Rewarding, but with stings.

    He gave his colleagues a send-off from the well, saying it was in part thanks to their collegiality he was running — doing “this other thing I’m doing now.”

    “If I thought I was going to get elected governor and have to work with folks that I didn’t agree with and that were going to fight all the time I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

    The Legislature has also passed some significant legislation on previous days of the session, including bills to stymie implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care law.