What to watch in the final days of the Georgia legislative session

The south wing of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

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The south wing of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

It’s crunch time at the Georgia Capitol this week as state legislators decide how to spend billions of dollars and whether to plan metro Atlanta’s transportation future and replace the state’s voting machines.

All bills must pass before midnight Thursday to have a chance of becoming law. Dozens will make the cut; hundreds will fall short.

The final legislative push comes at a time when Georgia will be under more scrutiny than usual. Amazon executives were set to scout locations in Atlanta this month for the company’s second headquarters, and the timing could coincide with the frenzy under the Gold Dome.

Here’s a look at where key bills stand as lawmakers prepare for their final two business days of the 2018 legislative session on Tuesday and Thursday:

IN PLAY

Mass transit

Tens of millions of dollars could pour into public transportation across metro Atlanta if the General Assembly approves a major transit bill.

The legislation, House Bill 930, would allow 13 counties to impose a 1-cent sales tax for transit construction and operations.

The proposal would also create an agency called the ATL — the Atlanta-region Transit Link — to oversee metrowide transportation planning. In addition, state funding would supplement transit expansion through a 50-cent fee on all taxi and ride-sharing services, as well as a new 1 percent sales tax on airport concessions.

Distracted driving

Two weeks after the measure seemed doomed, a bill to require motorists to use hands-free technology if they talk or text on their phones has gained new life in the Georgia Senate.

The legislation, House Bill 673, also would prohibit drivers from watching movies or otherwise fiddling with their gadgets. As currently drafted, those caught with their phones in their hands would face fines of $75 for a first offense, $150 for a second offense and $300 for a third offense within two years.

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House Speaker David Ralston speaks from the well as he honors the life of former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller at the Georgia Capitol on Friday. Miller, who was also a U.S. senator, died Friday at the age of 86. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

House Speaker David Ralston speaks from the well as he honors the life of former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller at the Georgia Capitol on Friday. Miller, who was also a U.S. senator, died Friday at the age of 86. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

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House Speaker David Ralston speaks from the well as he honors the life of former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller at the Georgia Capitol on Friday. Miller, who was also a U.S. senator, died Friday at the age of 86. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

Budget

Final negotiations will determine Georgia's $26 billion annual budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The budget includes about $1 billion in new spending that will mostly go toward schools, public health programs and construction projects.

The budget also includes some $40 million for programs to aid rural Georgia.

Voting

Georgians might cast paper ballots for president in 2020 under a bill that would replace the state's electronic voting machines.

Senate Bill 403 would require the state to abandon its current voting machines because they're vulnerable to hacking and they fail to leave a verifiable paper record.

The bill calls for a selection process of a new voting system over the next year that uses paper to varying degrees. One option relies on pen-and-paper ballots; another calls for touch-screen voting machines that print ballots for voters to review.

Georgia’s newly elected secretary of state would select the voting system next year, and then it would be up to the Legislature to decide whether to pay for it.

A separate measure, Senate Bill 363, would restrict early voting to one Saturday or Sunday before an election. The legislation also would force the city of Atlanta to close its polls during municipal elections at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.

ON THE BUBBLE

Religion in adoptions

A bill that would have allowed faith-based adoption agencies to turn away gay couples hasn't moved forward in the House since the state Senate passed it a month ago.

Opponents of the measure, Senate Bill 375, said it was discriminatory and would make it more difficult for same-sex couples to adopt children.

But supporters said it would create opportunities for adoption because religious adoption agencies would be more willing to open in Georgia.

Online sales tax

Georgia could tax all online retail sales for the first time under House Bill 61.

The measure would require that sales taxes be paid by online businesses that make at least $250,000 or 200 sales a year in Georgia. Businesses would either collect sales taxes and then remit them to the state, or customers who spend at least $500 on a website could be sent “tax due” notices.

If approved, the legislation could raise between $500 million and $600 million for the state and local governments. The internet’s largest retailer, Amazon, already collects sales taxes.

The measure passed the House last year and the Senate Finance Committee approved it early in this session, but it hasn’t moved since.

Tire fee

A proposed amendment to the Georgia Constitution would ban lawmakers from diverting fees that are supposed to go toward things such as cleaning up tire dumps and landfills.

The so-called “anti-bait-and-switch” amendment would ensure that money goes where it’s intended.

The measure, House Resolution 158, passed the House last month but hasn't budged in the Senate and is opposed by Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. The resolution is in Hill's committee.

Hidden predator

Two versions of legislation that aim to allow lawsuits by adults who say they were sexually abused as children are making their way through the Legislature.

The sponsor of House Bill 605 said changes adopted in the Senate last week would make it harder for alleged victims to sue.

To rectify that, Senate Bill 335 was altered in the House to insert the original language that passed the chamber unanimously last month, which would extend the civil statute of limitations to when the alleged victim is age 38, up from 23.

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