Flurry of activity at Capitol on Crossover Day

Legislature takes on hot topics

The Georgia House and Senate took on on big controversies Monday afternoon, affirming a restriction on state insurance coverage for abortion, making way for legal medical marijuana, and approving a bill aimed at Medicaid expansion for Obamacare.

The House also passed legislation calling for a statue on the Capitol grounds of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The legislation passed Monday, “Crossover Day,” generally isn’t ready for the governor’s signature or about to become law, but has passed just one chamber. Crossover Day is the deadline for bills to pass at least one chamber or face death for the rest of the year.

House Bill 990 would strip Gov. Nathan Deal of the power to expand Medicaid, placing the decision instead in the hands of the General Assembly. It passed 118-57 with high-profile backing. House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, a Republican of Milton, launched the debate in the House with a speech in favor of the bill. Gov. Nathan Deal said he would be fine with it.

The medical marijuana bill, HB 885, was also high-profile but less controversial: It passed the House with overhwelming bipartisan support, 171-4. It approves a substance that is not the same as marijuana leaf smoked for recreational use. Speakers lauded its potential to ease the suffering of ill children and keep families intact rather than splitting up to live in other states where it is legal.

The Senate’s abortion bill, SB 98, would set in state law a policy that is already in place through an order by the governor. Although the policy is already in place the debate still drew drama, with Sen. Donzella James, a Democrat from Atlanta, holding up a wire hanger as she asked a question from the floor. The bill would ban elective abortion coverage in state employee health plans and prohibit abortion coverage through insurance exchanges offered via the Affordable Healthcare Act.

The Legislature also took up some less controversial issues. The House reapproved the annual tax holiday at back-to-school time, for Aug. 1 and 2, a move that is expected to cost state and local governments about $70 million in lost tax revenue.

Earlier in the day it also approved overwhelmingly a measure that would assist the Atlanta Beltline in working with private business to build the transit loop and surrounding development, House Bill 960.

Tax breaks came for companies too.

The same bill that set up the back-to-school tax holiday also gives tax incentives to video game developers and developers of big, regionally important projects. The entire measure, House Bill 958, is expected to cost the state and local governments about $121 million a year.

In addition, the Georgia House easily approved making permanent a tax break for customers of luxury jet makers like Gulfstream. The tax break - which is set to expire next year - would save customers who fly into Georgia to get maintenance at businesses like Gulfstream $29 million to $40 million a year. Backers said making the tax break permanent would help companies like Gulfstream keep business in the state.

The House approved House Bill 933 by a 163-10 count.

With some of the controversial bills in the Senate, there was less back-and-forth, as the Senate had voted for “engrossment,” a procedure that could make it easier to pass some hard-line positions. That means the bill has to pass as is, without amendments. Sen. Jason Carter said Republicans were trying to limit debate, but Sen. Jeff Mullis said it was about holding debate in a more reasonable format, and Democrats had done the same thing when they were in power.

Just before 8 p.m. the House passed House Bill 729. An otherwise innocuous clean-up bill for a recently passed law on the car tax, HB 729 has a provision that may allow drivers to slack off on getting emissions tested.

Elsewhere: politicians and press conferences

Outside the chambers, news was taking place too, as politicians qualified to run for office in the Capitol downstairs, and groups took advantage of all the Crossover Day buzz to make statements.

At a press conference in a hallway, conservatives vowed to boycott at least five major companies based in Georgia for their roles earlier in the session in killing Senate Bill 377, legislation that would have allowed businesses to decline to serve people they believe are gay or having premarital sex on the grounds that to do so would violate their religious beliefs.

“This is going to hurt the (Republican) ticket in November,” said Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party. “They (legislators) chose to go where the money is.”

Supporters of the bill blamed the Coca-Cola Co., Delta Airlines, UPS, InterContinental Hotels and Home Depot for opposing the bill on the grounds it would hurt business and cost jobs.

As state officials and their opponents signed up to run, some had opinions to share.

Earlier in the day Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston led a lengthy line of Republicans seeking to qualify for another term in office.

“We haven’t finished everything that I would like to complete before I leave office as governor,” Deal said after he qualified. “We’ve done a lot of good things, but there are some things that still need to be finished.”

Ralston echoed that sentiment.

Ralston correctly predicted the medical marijuana bill would pass, but said there were still concerns about legislation that would restrict taxi services such as Uber.

Perhaps presaging the action on the King statue, Ralston also told reporters to be watchful for new versions of legislation aimed at proving Georgia is inclusive.

“We try to be fair and inclusive and I think we have been. You’re going to see some measures that are brought up to day that will be very very inclusive and very fair,” he said.

Over on the Democratic side of the ledger, Kyle Williams was the first in line to qualify. Williams, seeking to succeed Jason Carter, a Decatur Democrat, said he would be the first openly gay state senator in Georgia if he won. But he doesn’t think that will be a factor in his race. After all, he noted, the Atlanta district he is seeking is more than 70 percent Democratic.

Democrat Branko Radulovacki also qualified early Monday to run for an open U.S. Senate seat. He said party leaders urged him to run for insurance commissioner and Secretary of State, but he wanted to send a message to frontrunner Michelle Nunn that her path to the party’s nomination won’t be a cakewalk.

On the other end of the political spectrum, about 75 people huddled in coats and braved biting wind for Moral Monday speeches on the front steps of the Capitol. This week’s topic was jobs, pay equality and unemployment for school bus drivers during summer.

“We’re going to be fighting back,” said Charlie Flemming, president of the Georgia AFL-CIO.

Staff writers James Salzer, Greg Bluestein, Chris Joyner, Janel Davis, Rhonda Cook, Kristina Torres, Misty Williams and Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.

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Staff writers James Salzer, Greg Bluestein, Chris Joyner, Janel Davis, Rhonda Cook, Kristina Torres, Misty Williams and Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.