February 22, 2018 - Atlanta, Ga: The Georgia State Capitol is shown on Legislative Day 25, Thursday, February 22, 2018, in Atlanta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Georgia Legislature sets stage for final days of session

When the dust settled at the Georgia Capitol early Thursday morning, it became clear that transportation will likely dominate much of the rest of this year’s legislative session.

Lawmakers advanced bills that would set up a major expansion of public transportation in metro Atlanta, as well as prohibit drivers from fiddling with their phones while in traffic.

The mass transit bills, versions of which passed the state Senate and House on Wednesday, would allow 13 Atlanta-area counties to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in sales taxes for public transportation. The legislation also would create a regional planning agency, called The ATL, which would oversee transit funding and construction.

State Rep. Derrick Jackson, R-Tyrone, covers his face in the House chamber Wednesday during Crossover Day at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In addition, the House passed a bill that would force drivers to use Bluetooth or similar hands-free technology if they want to talk on their cellphones. The legislation is an attempt to crack down on distracted driving and reduce the death toll on the state’s highways, which topped more than 1,500 last year.

In all, the Georgia General Assembly voted on more than 100 bills Wednesday, an administrative deadline for bills to pass at least one chamber and still have a clear path to becoming law this year.

Legislators also advanced proposals to prevent the mentally ill from owning guns, add post-traumatic stress disorder as a condition treatable by medical marijuana and replace the state’s electronic voting machines, possibly with a system that relies on paper ballots.

Fights ahead

A bill that would allow religious adoption agencies to turn away gay couples is pending in the Georgia House after the state Senate passed it last month.

Supporters of the legislation, Senate Bill 375, say it would protect the religious rights of faith-based agencies. Opponents of the measure say it would promote discrimination against same-sex couples and gay foster children.

Separately, the House could take up a bill that would allow Georgians to buy alcohol earlier on Sundays.

Sunday drinking is always a contentious issue at the Gold Dome, but the Senate approved Senate Bill 17 to allow alcohol sales at restaurants at 11 a.m. on Sundays instead of 12:30 p.m. Grocery stores would still be barred from selling booze before 12:30 p.m.

Defeated

Representatives rejected a proposal early Thursday that would have allowed students to take public school funding and use it toward private school tuition.

The legislation, House Bill 482, would have provided the first direct subsidy for any student to attend a private school.

But the proposal fell short after opponents said it amounted to a private school “voucher” that would undermine public school funding.

Senators also voted down a measure, Senate Bill 418, that would have prohibited local governments from banning the sale of dogs and other pets.

Animal rights advocates opposed the measure because it would have prevented cities from cracking down on “puppy mills,” which provide animals to pet stores for sale.

Many other bills failed to advance: a hate crime proposal, a ban on bump stocks, casino gambling and the renaming of Savannah’s Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge so that it instead recognizes Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts.

But no bill is truly dead until the end of the 2018 legislative session on March 29. Bills that didn’t pass at least one chamber before Thursday could be revived if they’re inserted into other legislation that’s still moving forward.

Heading to the governor

A bill cutting state income taxes is heading to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature after it passed the state House on Thursday.

The measure, House Bill 918, quickly moved through the legislative process after the state revealed that state taxes would have increased by $5.2 billion over five years as an unintended side effect of the recently approved federal tax overhaul.

Lawmakers stripped a provision from the bill that would have given a $40 million-plus tax break on jet fuel to Delta Air Lines after the Atlanta-based company stopped giving a discount to National Rifle Association members.

Earlier, legislators approved a broad overhaul of the state’s adoption laws, making it easier for couples to adopt children.

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