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Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 1:15pm

It's Halftime For Georgia Lawmakers

Updated: 10 months ago.
Monday is the half-way mark for this year’s Georgia General Assembly session. Lawmakers have promised a fast session because it’s an election year. And it is speeding by fairly quickly. They passed the amended 2014 budget in record time, and it’s already headed to the Governor’s desk for his signature. They’ve also passed a bill that will move Georgia’s primary elections from July to May.

Monday is the half-way mark for this year’s Georgia General Assembly session, as House Speaker David Ralston mentioned somewhat incredulously to his charges last week. Lawmakers have promised a fast session because it’s an election year. And it is speeding by fairly quickly.

Lawmakers, for example, passed the amended 2014 budget in record time, and it’s already headed to the Governor’s desk for his signature. They’ve also passed a bill that will move Georgia’s primary elections from July to May.

There are other bills swirling around the state Capitol, including a bill loosening restrictions on guns (more on that below) and a measure to privatize the state’s foster care system. These bills will be moving through the legislature in one way or another this week. And here’s what else is coming up:

Snowjam: So Far, Some Lessons Learned

This week, Gov. Nathan Deal will release the results of an internal review he launched after two inches of snow paralyzed Atlanta late last month.

His spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the Governor has already put some reforms in place but he expects the internal review of state agencies involved in handling the storm will probably produce more “action items.” A second group – a 33-member severe weather task force – will look at longer-term solutions such as the criteria for triggering weather alerts sent to cell phones.

Some people, including your GPB News Now correspondent, wonder if we should think about getting more Georgians out of their cars and hence off of the roadways during severe weather. Anecdotes suggest that people who accessed mass transit or who live close to where they work were able to get home fairly quickly, despite the snow, ice and gridlock.

The Governor’s task force does include numerous transportation officials. So, in theory, they could recommend a serious look at transportation alternatives in two months when they release their findings.

But it’s somewhat unlikely. Gov. Deal already said that while some people will “suggest that this is an excellent example of why we need more mass transit,” he himself believes, “it would not have caused us to have fewer single occupants in vehicles on the day in question.”

What’s Not Coming Up

And even if the taskforce does suggest more transit, it won’t happen this year. That’s because there is no additional money for large-scale projects in the proposed 2015 state budget (and only small transit projects are planned by cities around the state).

That doesn’t mean everyone has thrown in the towel. In fact, there’s one guy who insists Georgia has to invest – as in money – in a variety of transportation options. That’s Chris Clark, head of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Some background: he was asked by Gov. Deal to chair his competitiveness initiative back in 2011, so it’s not like he doesn’t have any pull or is ignorant of the state’s historical aversion to mass transit.

He also was closely involved with the effort to pass a penny sales tax for transportation in 2012. The so-called T-SPLOST referendum failed in 9 out of 12 regions. But he said in an interview last week, that can’t be the end of the debate.

“We’ve got to continue to be serious,” he said. “Just because the vote happened and some groups voted against it, it didn’t fix anything. A ‘no’ vote doesn’t fix anything.”

He said the Chamber is looking at not only plan B, but also plan C, and plan D. He said, for example, the fourth penny of the current state gas sales tax goes into general fund – and that should instead go to pay for transportation improvements. He also said the 10-county model used for the TSPLOST vote could still work in some places – in the Columbus area, for example, where voters agreed to tax themselves for regional transportation improvements that are already underway.

“We’re going to make this a priority for the Georgia Chamber from now until – from now on,” he said. “We’ve got to invest in this. We’ve got to figure out the right methods -- whether that’s investing in MARTA or investing in buses, or different kinds of lanes – I’m not a traffic engineer, I don’t know. But I know we need to invest in multiple modes there.”

Legislating For The Next Generation

Moral Monday protests organized by progressives to spotlight issues they think are being ignored will continue at the State Capitol. This week’s edition will feature college students from around the state speaking out against a bill that would loosen restrictions on where Georgians can carry guns.

With some caveats, the bill would largely give the green light to licensed gun owners to bring firearms to churches, bars and other public places. And while it wouldn’t legalize bringing a gun to your college biology class, it would reduce penalties for those found carrying weapons on university campuses.

A similar bill failed last year, in part because of intense lobbying on the part of the University System of Georgia and other groups. It passed out of committee Thursday afternoon. The leeway in the latest version pleased Jerry Henry with GeorgiaCarry.org, which advocates on behalf of gun owners.

“We like it. It gives us a whole lot more freedom than what we had and it decriminalizes some acts that should not be criminalized in our opinion,” he said.

Ronnie Mosley, a Morehouse College student, will be leading the rally against the measure as part of a social issues group called The Millenials Movement. He was at the Capitol on Friday, strategizing and bringing other students up to speed on the gun bill. He had a question for lawmakers.

“This is a bill we’ve been fighting since last year,” he said. “Students have come out against it. The Board of Regents has come out against it. College presidents, campus police, teachers everyone is against it. Yet it’s still being pushed. So we ask the question: who’s this bill for?”

Water Rights, Ethics And A Bit of Confusion

If you need a little more to get the week started, the so-called Flint River bill could be on the floor as early as Monday. The measure would expand the state’s power to suspend water permits in southwest Georgia during severe droughts. The House will also take up the issue of expanding medical marijuana.

And on Tuesday, there will be an informational meeting to discuss last year’s ethics bill, which capped how much lobbyists can spend on lawmakers. The meeting is for lawmakers who don’t understand how the law works. If you want more information too, read on here.

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