With two days left, major bills still in play at Georgia Legislature

A few of the major issues are out of the way, but the General Assembly still has a host of big bills left on its plate — including a new $23.7 billion budget — to consider before the final gavel falls on the 2016 session Thursday.

They include several tax and spending bills, MARTA and fireworks legislation, a controversial measure that would set a minimum commission for insurance agents, and possibly another gun bill.

Lawmakers will be in session Tuesday and Thursday. If history holds, sine die will come late, with a final rush of legislation before House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle declare the session over.

As is tradition, lawmakers left a lot of the heavy lifting to the end.

The General Assembly got one hot-button issue out of the way last week by passing a so-called “religious liberty” bill that supporters say would protect the religious freedom of Georgians and opponents say would legalize discrimination, particularly against gays.

While lawmakers also already gave final passage to a bill to legalize firearms on all public colleges in Georgia, they have been left scrambling by Gov. Nathan Deal’s call for changes to address concerns he has about parts of the bill, such as provisions that would allow guns in campus child care centers.

The gun bill, House Bill 859, can't be changed because it already sits on Deal's desk. So lawmakers would have to write the fixes into other pieces of legislation. The question is whether they want to do that or just let Deal decide on the original bill.

The one measure sure to pass this week is House Bill 751, the $23.7 billion state budget for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1. In its current form, the spending plan includes raises for 200,000 teachers and state employees, and a 3 percent pension bonus for state retirees. It also includes more than $1.6 billion in new road, bridge and other construction projects.

Less certain is any kind of broad-based tax relief. Lawmakers are expected to pass select tax breaks, such as one for developers planning to turn the area surrounding Philips Arena into a mixed-use entertainment district. However, two measures to cut state income taxes have gotten little interest from the House after overwhelmingly passing the Georgia Senate.

Other issues up in the air this week include:

  • Senate Bill 369, a once seemingly dead effort to expand Marta's rail system.
  • House Bill 1036, which would create a temporary moratorium on petroleum pipelines.
  • House Bill 727, which would set new limits on the time fireworks could be set off during the holidays and give local authorities more regulatory control over fireworks in their community.
  • House Bill 827, which would require law enforcement agencies to find and turn in their old, untested rape kits to state forensic labs and create deadlines to turn in newly collected DNA evidence. Senate Health & Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said she's not sure the bill is necessary and hasn't had a hearing on it, so its chances are iffy.
  • House Bill 838, which would set a minimum commission for insurance agents selling certain health care policies. The measure is being pushed by House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, an insurance agent who is one of the most powerful lawmakers at the Capitol, so its chances of passage are good.