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Monday, March 17, 2014 - 4:15pm

Legislature Heads Into A Short Week With Long Days

State lawmakers are embarking on the final two days of the 2014 legislative session this week. And the two chambers will vote on more than 100 bills between them before adjourning Thursday night.

True to their word, lawmakers have presided over an easier, breezier session this year. There are simply fewer bills to debate, and fewer controversial measures causing camps to square off.

That’s because all legislators, and Gov. Nathan Deal, are up for re-election, and they cannot raise money for their campaigns until the session adjourns. Many will face primaries on May 20 – the earliest date for a primary election in recent Georgia history.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some bills with potential sweeping impact. And it’s also not to say lawmakers are refraining from some of the classic maneuvers that come in the final moments of the legislative session. That means, controversial bills may appear dead only to be revived as part of other measures.

In the final days, lawmakers will also find themselves voting on dozens of bills in the space of a few hours, often without taking note of last-minute changes.

So Many Bills, So Little Time

That poses concerns for Sen. Steve Henson, a Tucker Democrat.

“Much of the session we’ve only handled three, four, six, eight bills a day. And now the last two days of the session, we will take on over 80 bills,” he said in an interview Monday. “Plus we have a number of bills that have been tabled. So the real concern is how we are going to debate anything in a meaningful way because of the time constraints.”

He added, “It’s sad that once again we’re using this method of trying to tackle so much in the last couple of days that it doesn’t allow for the kind of transparency and openness we’d like to see in these debates.”

State Senator Jeff Mullis, who presides over the committee that decides what House bills make it to the Senate floor, says that’s always the way it’s been, even when the Democrats were in power. But he said it’s true they probably won’t be able to vote on more than 50 bills over the two remaining days.

“The volume at the end has never been different in the history of the legislature,” the Chickamauga Republican said. “Oftentimes we come back and fix things [in a bill] that didn’t work because we’re a citizen legislature.”

Among the bills lawmakers in the Senate will consider is a measure that would bar a sitting governor from expanding Medicaid.

Democrats, led by State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, have derided Gov. Deal, for backing a bill that would diminish executive power.

The Senate Minority Leader, Henson, said it indicates some are worried Gov. Deal won’t be in office next year to make sure Medicaid doesn’t happen.

Gov. Deal and other Republicans say the election has nothing to do with it. Instead, they say Georgia can’t trust the federal government to keep funding the program for years into the future.

The Senate will also take up a bill that would expand the use of medical marijuana to children who suffer debilitating seizures. Or as Sen. Mullis put it Monday, “The bill we’ve all been waiting for.”

Families of children with the seizure disorder have packed the Capitol this session.

Mullis said it’s not a bill he expected to vote on and it puts Georgia uncharacteristically in the lead for emerging medical techniques.

“When I first came here, I never thought we would be talking about this bill at the end,” Mullis said of the medical marijuana bill. “I thought it would be, ‘Maybe we’ll look into this some more, maybe next year,' but no. The bill has had a lot of momentum.”

He said he would prefer not to vote on it, in part because the treatment is so new. The bill is likely to face a tough road in the Senate because of questions about how patients will obtain the medication and whether Georgia should OK a substance for a particular use not sanctioned by the FDA.

What’s Ahead and What’s Not Ahead

The 2015 budget is the session’s most important measure, as it is every year. It’s the only bill that must pass. And that’s likely to be one of the bills lawmakers take up Tuesday.

One thing lawmakers may not vote on is a bill that would bar state agencies from carrying out any of the mandates of the Affordable Care Act. That would nix a program at the University of Georgia that helps Georgians enroll in plans through so-called Obamacare.

Georgia Watch, a consumer group, has been rallying its troops to convince the Senate to defeat the measure. The group is voicing concern about how the bill might interfere with consumers’ ability to get information on the state exchange set up through the federal healthcare reform law.

The Senate tabled the bill. That means it’s not on the calendar for Tuesday and Thursday. Its sponsor, Rep. Jason Spencer, will hold a press conference Tuesday to protest the bill’s failure to advance in the Senate.

Lawmakers expect to gavel out the 2014 session on Thursday, probably close to or at midnight. They had originally hoped to adjourn before St. Patrick’s Day but holding Day 40 on March 20 is still quite a feat.

Between now and then, the legislature and all the people following it will be logging long days. We’ve got you covered here at GPB News Now. And GPB’s public affairs program, On The Story, will have two broadcasts Thursday for Day 40. We will make sure you don’t miss a thing.

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