Two days left, Georgia lawmakers still mulling gun, pot and tax bills

Senators line up along the wall of as they wait to present their bills to the House Rules Committee. They face a tight deadline, with the Georgia General Assembly’s 2017 session set to end Thursday. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Senators line up along the wall of as they wait to present their bills to the House Rules Committee. They face a tight deadline, with the Georgia General Assembly’s 2017 session set to end Thursday. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

There are only two days left in the 2017 legislative session that must end Thursday, and key bills involving guns, medical marijuana and a slew of changes to state tax law remain in the hunt for final votes.

But with the only mandatory work done — passage of the annual state budget bill — it remains to be seen whether lawmakers have the stomach for the usual wheeling and dealing that typically marks the final days of the annual 40-day session.

The House and Senate are set to meet Tuesday and Thursday and then head home for the year. Both have a lengthy list of bills set to be considered Tuesday, but the real action might be behind the scenes, as negotiations continue and deals are made.

"Please look for vehicles or be kind to legislators on the other side of the hall," said Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, talking about a common legislative procedure in which bills with a lesser chance of passing are inserted into unrelated legislation in hopes of boosting their chances.

Among the bills still on the cusp of passage are:

Senate Bill 16Originally, this was a medical marijuana bill that added autism to the list of disorders that qualify for the state's program but that also reduced the THC level of the cannabis oil Georgians can legally use.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, the godfather of the state's medical marijuana program, had his own House Bill 65 that more broadly expanded the list of qualified diseases. In a compromise, SB 16 was amended in the House to keep the level of THC (the chemical that makes one high) as is and expand the list of disorders eligible for treatment.

If all goes as planned, SB 16 should reach Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk this week, Peake said. The first step: The bill is set to be voted on by the full House on Tuesday, but it would have to go back to the Senate for final consideration. The Senate, in turn, is expected to agree to the bill either Tuesday or Thursday, sending it to Deal for his signature.

“Unless something crazy happens, we are all good with the agreement we have had in place,” Peake said.

House Bill 280The 2017 version of the campus gun bill, HB 280 would allow Georgia weapons permit holders to carry firearms onto most parts of public colleges and universities. Deal vetoed a similar bill last year, although lawmakers have added additional exemptions including keeping guns out of on-campus child care centers in hopes of persuading him to sign it into law.

House Public Safety Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, long a sponsor of gun bills who has helped shepherd HB 280 through the process, said Monday that he is not sure whether the campus gun bill will pass this year.

The bill, he said, “is the same thing we did last year. We’ll see what the will is of the ‘almighty’ Senate.”

The bill is set to be debated by the full Senate either Tuesday or Thursday, although it would have to go back to the House for final consideration.

Senate Bill 1: A plan by Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, SB 1 would update the state's criminal code to create specific crimes related to domestic terrorism and to create a state Department of Homeland Security (the agency is currently combined with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency).

The bill was softened, slightly, after complaints that it could violate constitutional protections of speech and protest. The House also did away with the new department. A House committee on Monday also added an entirely unrelated bill that would allow speed-detecting cameras in school zones.

Not to be outdone, Cowsert added language Friday to create the new department to an unrelated bill, House Bill 452, that otherwise would require the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to post and share information about immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who have committed felonies.

HB 452 made it onto the final list for consideration Tuesday or Thursday, meaning it stands a good chance of getting out of the Senate but would still need the House’s nod for final approval.

Senate Bill 133Originally a minor bill to eliminate a $10-a-year tax on small businesses, the bill now also includes House Bill 314, which would make $60 million in state tax credits available to investors in rural businesses.

Critics say the bill is a rewritten variation of investment tax credit programs used across the country that make huge profits for a few large capital firms, or CAPCOs, that handle the investments. Supporters, however, say this year's version of the bill is needed because some rural businesses badly require access to capital to grow.

SB 133 is scheduled to be considered by the House on Tuesday, but it would have to go back to the Senate for final consideration.

House Bill 159: The first major update of the state's adoption laws in a generation sailed through the House but was hijacked in the Senate, where members added language that would allow state-funded private agencies to refuse to place children with LGBT families.

The ensuing firestorm, from the state's business leaders, LGBT activists, Deal and leaders in the House caused the Senate to stall the bill, and it's unlikely to pass in its current form. House members, meanwhile, are looking for other legislation onto which the adoption bill could be added.

House Bill 340:A bill that would make sweeping changes to how used cars and leased cars are taxed has been the subject of fierce fighting between used- and new-car dealers. The original House version would have raised taxes on every used car sold while the Senate amended it to maintain the current tax on used cars sold at buy-here, pay-here lots.

The bill has passed both the House and Senate but could require a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers to negotiate a final version.

Senate Bill 156: Originally a bill dealing with special local option sales taxes in DeKalb County, SB 156 was transformed in the House Ways and Means Committee to also include a huge tax break for yacht owners, plus a plan to regulate daily fantasy sports leagues.

If it passes the House, SB 156 would have to go back to the Senate.

House Bill 329: As approved by the House, HB 329 would have dropped the state's top income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.4 percent. Everybody would pay the same rate, but the bill created a low-income tax credit to make up for the elimination of lower rates paid by the poor.

The Senate, however, took a whack at it in committee, lowering the top rate in the bill to 5.65 percent and increasing the personal exemption Georgians can take by $300 per person. The graduated system would stay in place.

While HB 329 seems likely to get out of the Senate, the question is whether the House wants to go along with it or try to force a negotiation.

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