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Friday, March 29, 2013

Sine Die 2013: Ethics compromise passes, abortion and gun proposals stall

It was a late night at the Gold Dome as Sine Die ended right around midnight. After a grueling 40th day under the Gold Dome, leaders of both chambers gaveled the legislative session to a close and state lawmakers tossed shreds of proposals, reports, and other paper documents into the air in celebration.

Aside from passing Georgia's $19.3 million budget for fiscal year 2014, which the House OK'ed around 8:30 p.m. last night, state legislators primarily focused on ethics, abortion, and guns.

Ethics reform - House Bills 142 and 143:

A small group of lawmakers worked early in the morning of Sine Die to broker a compromise between the state Senate and House of Representatives versions of the dueling ethics bills. A $75 gift cap meant that the Senate conceded $25 while the House caved in on the gift ban originally proposed by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Unsurprisingly, there are exceptions. Among those are committee dinners and travel expenses. On the positive side, citizen activists won't need to register as lobbyists under the legislation, unless they receive $250 or more in reimbursements.

The bill outlining lobbyist gifts unanimously passed, albeit with some additional loopholes, in the state Senate. Ralston asked his House members to move forward and also approve the ethics proposal.

"By voting for the report, because although not perfect, this measure does for the first time put limitations [on] spending," Ralston said. As the Speaker indicated, the consensus among lawmakers was that something had to pass and that additional ethics reforms could be revisited next year.

"We took a small step in a state that ranks 50th in the nation for ethics laws," William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause of Georgia, said after the session. He said good-government watchdogs would continue the push for ethics reform.

Abortion ban for state employee insurance plans - HB 246:

Originally, House Bill 246 would have simply provided the Georgia World Congress Center Authority with the authority to make decisions about its employees' benefits. In the legislative session's final days, however, state Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan, added an anti-abortion amendment to the proposal that would have prevented those insurance plans from covering abortions.

The bill stalled last night. House Speaker Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal later concurred that the issue needed a closer look. "I think [it's] something that over the recess we will all be looking at in terms of what our state health benefit plan provides and whether or not there are other ways short of legislation that this subject could be addressed," Deal told Georgia Public Broadcasting.

There were rumors that Deal might consider another option - for example, an executive order - to ban state employee health plans from helping to pay for abortions. One option, says Georgia Right to Life, would circumvent either chamber by empowering the Department of Community Health to enact the policy. Sound familiar? That's because the governor employed the same roundabout tactic with the "bed tax" earlier this year.

Concealed firearms on college campuses - SB 101:

The proposal, which aimed to expand gun owner rights, stalled after negotiations failed over whether gun owners could carry concealed firearms on college campuses and in K-12 schools. Both chambers initially found some middle ground on the issue and unofficially agreed to require gun owners between 21 and 25 years old to take a mandatory safety course.

Their agreement fell apart yesterday morning as senators moved the goal post and wanted all gun owners to take the class. In the session's final hour, state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, told the House that the bill had stalled over carrying guns on campus and was dead for the 2013 session.

In addition, numerous other measures came up for debate yesterday. Some of the highlights included:

HR 73: State Rep. Carol Hughley, D-Columbus, along with two other Columbus state reps, pushed hard for Lathan Word, an innocent man who was wrongly to prison for 11 years, to receive $400,000 in compensation. The measure was ultimately approved - but not before Senate Republicans basically put an innocent man on probation by adding language saying that Word's payment would be cut off if he commits a felony.

HB 338: The native azalea, not to be confused with any of those other inferior kinds of azaleas, is Georgia's official state wild flower. Important legislation, indeed.

HB 361: House reps nixed a plan to deny seasonal workers unemployment benefits. State senators amended the bill that originally enabled certain employees to stop automated payroll deductions that went towards union dues.

HB 487: This bill makes the Georgia Lottery Corporation responsible for overseeing video poker machines. With the governor's backing, the HOPE college scholarship and pre-K funding would also receive a cut from the cash collected by coin-operated gambling devices.

HB 517: The legislation allows groceries to sell alcohol within 100 yards of college campuses.

Georgia Fair Taxation Act of 2014: State Rep. Tom Kirby, R-Loganville, announced legislation yesterday for next year that would seek to replace Georgia's income tax with a higher sales, or "consumption," tax. He'll spend the next nine months working on the specifics.

Next week, CL will present the 2013 Golden Sleaze Awards and recognize the shadiest of all the shady legislators under the Gold Dome. Stay tuned!

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