Sine Die 2014: Gun bill moves ahead, children get left behind

'Please stand up for what's right. Don't put sick kids in the middle of political issues'


Since January, the Georgia General Assembly have zipped their way through the 2014 legislative session. That rush came with one specific goal in mind: getting the hell out of town so they could campaign for Georgia's primary on May 20. Given that it's illegal for legislators to raise cash during the session, many reps and senators were intent on finishing the 40-day legislative session as fast as possible. Because of that, Sine Die arrived earlier than any other time in the last 18 years. But that didn't prevent the 40th and final day of the session from going into the wee hours of the night. As required by law, state lawmakers on Tuesday passed a $20.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2015. With that aside, state reps and senators turned their attention toward gun rights, medical marijuana, foster care privatization, MARTA, and tax breaks. Here's how it all played out:

Nobody wins in skirmish between Medical marijuana, autism insurance bills:

Before the legislative session, few expected medical marijuana to become one of the most discussed issues among state lawmakers. State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, pushed hard to pass legislation that let men, women, and children legally use cannabis oil - not the kind of THC-laden pot people use recreationally - to treat cancer, glaucoma, and seizures symptoms.

After weeks of the bill being in flux, Peake and state Sen. Renee Untermann, R-Buford, who hoped to pass legislation to expand autism insurance coverage to children 6-years-old and younger, attempted to politically outmaneuver each other on the session's final day. Georgia's medical marijuana bill, complete with an amendment for autism insurance attached, unanimously passed on the Senate floor. House reps countered with multiple medical marijuana proposals without the autism attachment. Untermann added that Peake's bill wouldn't pass without the addition - and the dance continued well into the evening.

A little after 10 p.m., the Macon lawmaker's last-ditch effort included a stripped-down version of his original legislation that would have provided men and women who carried cannabis oil across state lines relief from prosecution. "If this bill doesn't pass, these families, their reality is dealing with a child who's going to have 100 seizures tomorrow and the next day," Peake told his fellow reps. Nevertheless, the Senate countered with a mere study committee on medical marijuana. Both sides held out. And just like that Georgia's pot dreams went up in smoke. So did any sort of financial relief for parents whose children suffer from autism.

"We gave the Senate three different opportunities to vote on the measure," says House Speaker David Ralston after the session. One hour earlier, he said that the Senate "would rather make speeches that take care of Georgia's children."

Blaine Cloud of Smyrna, whose daughter Alaina has Dravet Syndrome which causes seizures says he "blames a lot of people. Our children got in the middle of a political agenda."

If he could say one thing to lawmakers who merged the medical marijuana issue with another, he said: "Please stand up for what's right. Don't put sick kids in the middle of political issues."

Gun rights expanded in churches:

After two years of debate, Georgia lawmakers have agreed to expand gun rights in churches, provided that houses of worship that "opt in" to making it legal to carry firearms inside their walls. For religious institutions that decided to prohibit firearms, people found in violation of that law would only face a misdemeanor charge that carried a $100 fine. As expected, no campus carry provision was included in the firearms measure (but lawmakers did make it legal to use silencers for hunting purposes). The House passed the revised gun bill, which in its original form would have allowed firearms inside bars and unsecured parts of airports, with a 112-58 vote and received a standing ovation from a handful of lawmakers. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, one of the proposal's strongest backers, appeared extremely giddy after the fact, firing off a round with his finger gun as he grinned toward the House press box. The bill now heads to Deal's desk for his final approval. Any takers on when the first Second Amendment bill for the 2015 legislative session gets pre-filed?

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MARTA gains financial flexibility, possible Clayton County referendum:

State lawmakers gave MARTA a helping hand rather than a slap on the face on the session's final night. Waiting on Gov. Nathan Deal's desk is House Bill 1009, a measure sponsored by state Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro, that allows Clayton County voters in November to decide whether they want MARTA or another transit system to operate in the area. Clayton County commissioners must still place the question on the General Election ballot.

One measure that will give the transit agency some financial flexibility also passed. Sponsored by state Rep. Mark Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, House Bill 264 would have lifted the so-called "50-50 restriction" that requires the transit agency to spend half its revenues on operations and maintenance and the other half on capital projects. Jacob wanted to lift that restriction for three years.

Bill giving Beltline transit a boost fails:
Sponsored by state Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocila, House Bill 960 would have allowed projects such as the Atlanta Beltline - in fact, lawmakers mentioned it by name right before approving the measure - to tap a public-private partnership to build its transit line. But the House failed to agree to Senate changes to the bill before midnight.

Georgia's "religious freedom" bill comes back from the dead, falls short:
For several hours on Sine Die, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, had considered reviving his "religious freedom" bill that would have allowed business owners to discriminate against LGBT and other minority groups to protect their religious rights. His original proposal had stalled in the wake of massive backlash from opposing advocates and corporations. But the Republican senator's legislation briefly returned this afternoon as possible amendments to two other bills. McKoon eventually pulled back due to what he called "overwhelming" opposition to his measure, namely after a strongly worded letter from Metro Atlanta Chamber President Hala Moddelmog dropped on senators' desks.

Drug tests for welfare and food stamp recipients heads to the governor's desk:

The controversial measure introduced by state Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, would require men and women who receive food stamps and welfare benefits to be drug tested if state employees suspected they were high on illegal substances. Opponents of the bill argued that the legislation unfairly infringed upon the rights of Georgians living on low incomes.

"It's a recipe for profiling, it's a recipe for subjectivity," said Fort, who added that he would've introduced an amendment requiring state lawmakers to also be drug tested.

State lawmakers debated over whether the law's language, which resembles a 2012 bill that was deemed unconstitutional, would even hold up against a legal challenge. "If we pass this bill, all we will be doing is buying a lawsuit," McKoon said. Nevertheless, the Senate passed Morris' proposal with a 29-22 vote. The House later approved those small tweaks to the bill before sending it off to Deal.

Seasonal education workers banned from unemployment benefits (H.B. 714): The General Assembly banned seasonal school employees such as janitors, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers from receiving unemployment benefits.

Gulfstream tax break extended (H.B. 164): State lawmakers voted to indefinitely extend tax breaks for airline manufacturer Gulfstream's service center that were set to expire at the end of June 2015.

HOPE grants for technical college students restored (H.B. 697): The General Assembly passed a bill that would allow HOPE grants to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for technical college students with a GPA of 3.5 or higher. The proposal effectively reversed a series of 2011 cuts made to the statewide scholarship fund.

Foster care privatization stalls (S.B. 350): A bill that would have required the Division of Family and Children Services to outsource many of its services for adoption, family preservation, foster care, and case management never came up for a House vote despite passing through the Senate days earlier. While the proposal had initially gained traction during the legislative session, Deal's recent announcement of a Child Welfare Reform Council to review and reform the department's policies hurt its chances of passing tonight. Untermann urged lawmakers to pass her legislation. They declined.