Capitol Recap: Georgia Legislature opens with liquor, pot on its plate

Staff writers Michelle Baruchman, Greg Bluestein, James Salzer, Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

The first week in a Georgia legislative session is one rooted in organization. There's selection of the leadership, including the election of the House speaker and the naming of chairmen in both chambers.

Then heads turn toward money, namely the governor's budget proposal.

On Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a record budget of $25 billion. (For a little perspective, California Gov. Jerry Brown also proposed a budget this week for $122 billion, of course, that’s with a $2 billion deficit that Georgia law would forbid.

The big headline is that Deal is seeking 2 percent raises for teachers, and this time he wants to make sure they get it. Last year, Deal helped push through the Legislature money to pay for 3 percent raises for the teachers, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in October that only about 40 percent of the state's school systems used that money to fund raises.

Governor positive about his Plan B

Deal also made it clear Wednesday in his State of the State address that his interest in education goes beyond what teachers take home every payday.

The governor – despite a stinging defeat at the ballot box in November for his plan to give the state authority to take over failing schools – is still pressing for a way to allow the state to step in at problem schools, apparently by allowing more students to transfer out of them.

But Deal offered little detail Wednesday for his Plan B. He will let legislators figure that out.

The governor did, however, show an ear for a catchy lyric, stealing inspiration from Savannah’s own Johnny Mercer: “The budget and the legislation I bring to you will continue to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”

‘Mimosa mandate’ a fairness issue

Done with the business of the budget and the State of the State, legislators turned to liquor.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, though not a drinker, saw something unfair in the way the state handles alcohol sales on Sunday mornings: While privately owned restaurants are banned from serving alcohol before 12:30 p.m. on Sundays, bartenders can start pouring early in government-owned buildings, such as the Georgia World Congress Center.

Calling it her “mimosa mandate” — although some would argue in favor of bloody marys — Unterman’s Senate Bill 17 would allow restaurants to start serving drinks alongside the eggs Benedict at 10:30 a.m.

Somebody who could make the case for sticking with dry toast is Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens.

Worried about a “fragile compromise” between legislative leaders and the faith community, Cowsert has shown no sign of easing on his opposition to mixing French wine with French toast on a Sunday morning.

Sure doesn’t sound like a guy from Athens.

Much ado about medical marijuana

If it wasn’t liquor, it was marijuana — purely of a medicinal nature — that consumed much of the time of legislators.

In fact, two bills were introduced this week.

Senate Bill 16 would expand the list of illnesses and conditions that could be treated with a cannabis oil to include autism. But only if the oil has a level of THC — the component in marijuana responsible for producing a high – that has been reduced from 5 percent to 3 percent.

State Sen. Ben Watson of Savannah, who is a doctor, said "the higher percentage of THC means the more psychoactive the drug is."

Critics of the bill say that reducing the level of THC also lowers its effectiveness.

“Why would we take away something that is helping people now by reducing the THC limit?” said Shannon Cloud, whose daughter, Alaina, has a severe form of epilepsy that has been treated in the past, in part, by the oil.

Watson has suggested using more of the oil to counter the reduction in THC.

The second bill comes from state Rep. Allen Peake, a Republican from Macon who wrote the state's 2-year-old medical marijuana law.

Peake’s new bill, House Bill 65, also aims to expand the number of illnesses and conditions treatable with marijuana. In addition to autism, he wants to see Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/AIDS, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and Tourette’s syndrome covered.

Peake also tried to expand coverage last year but it was blocked in the Senate. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he thinks Senate Republicans could be ready for a compromise this year.

Perhaps they have mellowed.

Peake wants to go straight to voters

Even if the medical marijuana law is expanded to treat more illnesses, that doesn’t solve the problem of how somebody in Georgia can obtain it.

Peake has pressed in the past to allow the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana within the state.

But he has faced tough opposition, including the governor and law enforcement officials. Many of them say that marijuana’s federal classification as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous class of drugs, makes it a no-go. They want the feds to fix the problem before they get involved.

Peake wants voters to get a shot at it.

This week, he also introduced House Resolution 36, which — if it attained passage by two-thirds majority in each chamber of the Legislature — would let voters decide in 2018 whether to allow the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana within Georgia’s borders.

Peake has one thing going for him: 71 percent of voters in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll earlier this month supported his idea.


Legislative session coverage

To see more of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's coverage from the Georgia General Assembly's legislative session, go to http://www.myajc.com/georgia-legislature/. To track particular bills and resolutions, check out the Georgia Legislative Navigator at http://legislativenavigator.myajc.com/. You can also follow the proceedings on Twitter at http://twitter.com/GAPoliticsNews or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/gapoliticsnewsnow.