Mar. 16, 2016 - Atlanta - Rep. Kevin Tanner, R - Dawsonville, sponsor of HB 757, walks to the clerk's desk after passage of the bill. The House approved proposed changes to the controversial religious liberty bill. The new version cuts what opponents found most egregious about the earlier proposal, but still includes several passages they fear will allow legal discrimination. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Capitol power players run the floor in March

You can tell March Madness has gripped Georgia’s Legislature because committee chairmen are swatting away bills like Dikembe Mutombo.

Like many a basketball game, a legislative session tends to get more interesting as the final buzzer nears. There are now two days left in the 40-day session, the time when the most powerful players are running things on the floor.

So who’s tough in the paint?

This session, the work of Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman stands out. The Buford Republican has had a hand in stalling major bills that would expand MARTA’s rail system, add to the list of illnesses and conditions treated by medical marijuana, and cut into a backlog of untested rape kits.

Like basketball players, Unterman has been known to engage in a little bit of trash talk, legislative-style. For example, here’s what she said after giving the back of her hand – well, denying a hearing – to House Bill 827, the rape kit bill: “I don’t see a reason to write a law.”

What a burn, considering the House voted 160-0 to pass the measure. Supporters say it would clear up years of confusion about when and how new evidence, stored in packages known as rape kits, should be picked up by police and sent to forensic labs for DNA testing. Those supporters include members of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, police chiefs association, two hospital groups, victim advocates and even House Speaker David Ralston.

But Unterman isn’t the only intimidating presence in the Legislature.

Consider House Rules Committee Chairman John Meadows, or, as he refers to himself, the “judge and the jury.” Meadows’ power is such that he keeps an apartment between the ears of every legislator. His name often appears in sentences that contain the phrase “live or die” because if he doesn’t like a bill, you might as well bury it in six feet of dirt.

Bills that Meadows likes, on the other hand, have a certain resilience. On Monday, the Senate Insurance Committee refused to move House Bill 838, which would have guaranteed a 5 percent commission for agents who sell small-group health insurance. A majority of the senators on the committee refused to vote, which might seem peculiar except that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story the day before raising questions about conflicts of interest concerning the bill and its patron, Meadows, an insurance agent. The lawmakers who took a pass also have ties to the insurance industry.

Meadows responded the next day, when he said during a Rules Committee meeting that he was inclined not to schedule any Senate bills for a vote.

Now, maybe Senate leaders, including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, just happen to take pity on struggling insurance agents – it’s hard to tell. But two days after Meadows bill was shoved into limbo, it came out to meet the sun and a newly revamped Senate Insurance Committee sporting two additional members. And, lo, HB 838 won the committee’s endorsement and appears headed for a floor vote.

It was a slam-dunk.

Deal flexes his muscle

Gov. Nathan Deal did his own share of swatting down legislation this past week – or at least he sent out a gentle reminder that he could.

Since climbing into the big chair, Deal has come up with a surprise during several legislative sessions – think the hospital tax in 2013 – but he usually does it in the first few weeks.

That’s why he probably caught many off guard Monday when he announced that he’d like to see some changes in House Bill 859, the campus carry bill. It was a surprise because the bill had already moved through the Legislature and, at least figuratively, onto a corner of his desk.

The bill would allow anyone 21 or older with a weapons permit to bring a gun anywhere on the campuses of the state’s public colleges and universities, except for dormitories, fraternity houses or sororities, and at athletic events.

Places where guns could be carried include on-campus child care centers, and Deal indicated he had a problem with that in a statement his office sent out. The governor also expressed concern about high school students who are also taking college courses on campuses that allow firearms — that would be all of them under HB 859. The word “veto” did not appear in the statement, but it popped into the minds of everybody who read the announcement.

Unfortunately for legislators, Deal offered few clues about what could be done to make the bill more palatable to him. The next day, he told reporters that he was “a little reluctant to try to tell them how to draft legislation.”

That sent lawmakers scurrying, trying to figure out what might make Deal happier, as well as whether they would really be able to tolerate the changes the governor required.

While he was at it, Deal also made it clear that he remains opposed to expanding the state’s medical marijuana law. Early in the session, the governor helped shoot down the main part of state Rep. Allen Peake’s House Bill 722, which would have allowed the limited cultivation of marijuana and manufacture of cannabis oil. The bill still would have expanded the list of diseases and conditions that could be treated with the cannabis oil to include HIV/AIDS, epidermolysis bullosa and Tourette’s syndrome. At least it would have until Unterman decided not to give the bill a hearing in the Senate.

Peake then sought other options, hoping to tack language from HB 722 onto an unrelated bill. If that failed, he promised to try again next year.

Tuesday, the governor said don’t bother. The state already took “significant steps” by creating last year’s medical marijuana law. If you want any more, such as clearance to cultivate marijuana, he said you better bring it up with the feds.

“I’m ready to have somebody tell me that those who support anything in this arena have put the same kind of pressure on the members of Congress that they put on the members of the Legislature and the governor’s office,” he said.

Now, we wait to see what action Deal could take on House Bill 757, the “religious liberty” bill that Republicans moved through the Legislature on Wednesday. Earlier this month, Deal was speaking about religious liberty when he said he would reject any bill that legalizes discrimination.

But now that HB 757 also occupies a corner of his desk, will Deal side with his fellow Republicans at the Capitol or with the business leaders and gay rights advocates who have called the measure discriminatory.

When he spoke earlier, the governor called on his fellow Republicans to “recognize that the world is changing around us.”

But did the bill change enough for him?

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