Budget, distracted driving bills pass on last day
By R.J. RICO and BEN NADLER
Mar. 30, 2018
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers agreed to a budget that fully funds the state's K-12 education formula and passed a measure that cracks down on distracted driving before the gavel fell on this year's legislative session early Friday.
A number of bills, including a controversial immigration enforcement measure and a proposal to move away from electronic voting machines failed to be taken up as lawmakers rushed to pass dozens of other bills throughout the final hours of the legislative session.
Attention now turns to Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican in the final year of his last term. Georgia law gives Deal 40 days to decide whether to sign or veto legislation, or allow it to become law without his name.
The House and Senate adjourned a few minutes after midnight, which used to be considered a hard deadline to end the session. But in recent years, lawmakers have worked beyond it.
Here's a look at some of the top issues at the Capitol:
The Georgia House passed a budget Thursday for the upcoming fiscal year that fully funds the state's K-12 education formula after over a decade of cutbacks.
The $26 billion budget will go to Gov. Nathan Deal, who's expected to quickly sign it into law. The measure passed the Senate on Tuesday.
The proposal, buoyed by a $195 million increase in the governor's tax revenue estimate, includes an additional $167 million for K-12 education and allows lawmakers to fully fund the Quality Basic Education formula.
The new budget also includes $100 million in borrowing for transit projects, $360 million toward the teacher retirement pension system and about $16 million in funding for school safety in the wake of last month's school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
A proposal that could considerably expand public transportation in the Atlanta metro area is on its way to the governor's desk.
With only minutes left in the session Thursday evening, the House and Senate passed a compromise measure after reconciling differences between bills passed by each chamber earlier this year.
The measure would establish a regional transit authority called the ATL that would be responsible for overseeing transit expansion in the area.
A previous House version called for a statewide fee of 50 cents for all rides in a taxi or ride-hailing service such as Uber that would go to transit projects, but that provision was removed in conference.
The state budget includes $100 million in bonds for transit projects.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce praised the passage, calling it "an effective measure to advance the quality of life and economic development."
Georgia lawmakers have agreed to expand the state's medical cannabis oil program to include those with post-traumatic stress disorder or intractable pain.
Senators voted 38-14 in favor of widening the cannabis oil program and establishing a joint study commission to analyze medical marijuana.
The Senate had weeks ago stripped PTSD and intractable pain from the bill, but the House added it back Thursday afternoon as Rep. David Clark gave a fiery speech accusing Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of "playing games" with people's lives by blocking the program's expansion.
Cagle's spokesman declined to comment.
Hours later, while introducing the new version of the bill, Sen. Matt Brass took to the Senate floor to denounce the comments Clark had made in the House. Brass said Clark had acted like a "child pitching a fit."
Clark, a former Army Ranger, says those suffering from PTSD who have access to cannabis oil are less likely to turn to highly addictive opioid painkillers.
Pending the governor's signature, Georgia will soon become the 16th state in the U.S. to enact a hands-free driving law.
The House gave final passage Thursday night to a proposal that would prevent drivers from holding their cellphones while behind the wheel.
Proponents say drivers who look at their phones are largely responsible for a recent spike in fatal crashes in Georgia — and the resulting rise in auto insurance premiums.
Under the bill, first-time offenders would be fined $50, with the fees increasing for repeat offenders.
First-time offenders could avoid the fine by appearing in court with proof that they have purchased a hands-free device.
Differing opinions in the House and Senate on amending the state's Hidden Predator Act doomed the efforts of victims' advocates this session.
GOP Rep. Jason Spencer had sought to significantly expand the law under which adults who were sexually abused as children could file lawsuits against their alleged abusers.
Earlier Thursday, Senators voted 51-0 in favor of giving adults up to the age of 30 to file suit in the future. The current age limit is 23, but the House had last month voted to extend the statute of limitations to 38.
Shortly before 11 p.m., the House sought to create a conference committee in hopes of reaching a compromise. Senators, however, refused to form the committee so late at night.
During a news conference Thursday morning, Spencer had said the Senate's proposal "leaves victims behind."
Georgia lawmakers have given final passage to a proposal to let victims of domestic violence terminate housing leases early without paying penalties.
The House voted 166-0 in favor of the measure, sending it to the governor.
Under the proposal, victims who have received a domestic violence order in either criminal or civil court proceeding will be eligible to terminate their lease early.
Proponents say victims who are trying to escape a dangerous environment should not also have to worry about the fees they would face if they break their lease.
A tenant would need to provide a landlord with a written notice at least 30 days before breaking the lease.
Those who win a big lottery jackpot would be able to remain anonymous under a bill that is now awaiting the governor's signature.
The Senate on Thursday granted final passage to Minority Leader Steve Henson's proposal, which legislators say will help public safety.
Under the measure, those who win at least $250,000 and submit a written request can prevent their name from being publicly released.
Proponents say lottery winners can become prime targets of criminals.
The proposal has been criticized by open government advocacy groups, who say it is a bad idea to allow the government to hand out millions to private citizens without a public record.