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Thursday, March 20, 2014 - 9:38pm

Georgia Expands Gun Rights, Defers Medical Marijuana

Georgia lawmakers have made it through one of the quickest legislative sessions in recent memory. Along the way, they passed bills limiting healthcare coverage for abortion, expanding where you can bring a gun and barring a Governor from expanding Medicaid.

Lawmakers gaveled out of the 2014 session at midnight Thursday, per their custom, but not before battling most of the day over a firearms bill dubbed “the guns everywhere bill” and a medical marijuana measure.

Republicans (and some Democrats) were split on how broad the gun legislation should be. And lawmakers in the Senate only wanted to pass the cannabis oil measure if it included a separate provision regarding services for children with autism. The oil is being used to treat a rare seizure disorder affecting some Georgia children.

In the end, lawmakers succeeded in passing a sweeping gun bill, but the medical marijuana measure largely failed. The only successful bill pertaining to cannabis oil sets up a study committee.

Last-Minute Measures

Lawmakers went into session at 10 a.m. and worked on and off all day. Here are the key bills they finalized on Day 40:

*Guns: The measure will allow licensed gun-owners to take firearms into many government buildings and schools. Churches can “opt in” if they want to allow members to carry while in the sanctuary.

*Income tax: Lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment that, if voters approve a referendum in November, will cap the state income tax at six percent. Supporters say it reins in government spending, but opponents say it will tie Georgia’s hands in a future fiscal crisis.

*Welfare drug-testing: Lawmakers passed a bill that would require some welfare benefit recipients to undergo drug tests. A previous version of the bill was found unconstitutional. The bill’s Republican backers say the new measure includes a provision mandating the tests only if the state has reasonable suspicion a beneficiary has a drug problem. But not everyone was persuaded it would pass constitutional muster. Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican, said the bill will result in lawsuits against the state.

“I understand this is an election year and I know the sensitivities around that but this is not good policy and all we will wind up doing is employing some lawyers for a while,” he said.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, responded to those concerns by saying, “We can’t legislate with one eye on the courthouse.”

Bills That Already Passed

Unlike in past years, lawmakers didn’t leave everything to the last day. Here are some bills they passed before the legislature’s final day:

*Medicaid Expansion: A bill that would bar a sitting governor from expanding Medicaid passed both chambers before Day 40. Democrats have criticized Gov. Deal for backing a bill that would diminish executive power. Some observers have speculated Republican lawmakers drafted the measure to make sure the Governor didn’t waver in his opposition to Medicaid expansion, which is part of Pres. Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But Deal’s staff has said he supported the measure from its inception. And he said on Wednesday he will sign it.

*Abortion: Lawmakers passed a bill barring coverage of abortion by many healthcare plans sold in Georgia. Specifically it includes the state employee healthcare plan and any plans bought through a state healthcare exchange set up through the Affordable Care Act.

*Budget: The 2015 fiscal spending plan passed the legislature with two days to spare. The $20.8 billion budget is relatively flush compared to recent years of austerity. It includes a notable increase in funds for education.

*Anti-Obamacare: Under this bill, no state agency will be able to carry out mandates connected with the Affordable Care Act.

Guns And Pot Steal Spotlight

Macon Republican Rep. Allen Peake sponsored the medical marijuana bill and he said the study committee alone felt “shallow” because it won’t do enough. He said some of the children suffering from seizure disorders won’t live until January when the study committee will begin its work.

“I’m going to go back to my normal life tomorrow, and these families are not,” he said in an interview.

Families with children suffering from seizures spent many days at the state Capitol lobbying lawmakers. Some have sought treatment in other states where medical marijuana is legal and is showing promise as a treatment for seizures.

Sarah Caruso is a Flowery Branch mother whose five-year-old daughter, Britlyn, suffers dozens of seizures a day.

“We play with the medications constantly to try to find the right concoction for our children,” she said. “This medicine would alleviate all of those medicines and we’re just asking for the right to be able to give this to our children.”

One of the sticking points on the gun bill was whether churches would have to stipulate if they allowed guns or not. Some lawmakers in the Senate echoed Gov. Deal’s stance objecting to forcing churches to have to wade into the debate. They preferred a system where churches would “opt in” if they want to allow guns. And that’s what’s in the final bill.

Sheriffs Balk At Gun Bill Provision

Late in the day, a provision allowing guns on college campuses that had failed earlier in the session was briefly resurrected. It failed again, in part because Gov. Deal has made clear his opposition to that provision. Former Senator George Hooks, who now lobbies on behalf of the University of Georgia, said guns have no place on college campuses.

Ralston, the House Speaker, said passing a strong gun bill was a key achievement of the session.

“We have worked in good faith to strengthen the Second Amendment rights of Georgians,” he said. “I think we got the best bill we could get and I think it was important we get a bill and we did.”

Questions remain, however, especially for county officials and sheriffs. The bill would allow licensed gun owners to take firearms in government buildings that don’t have metal detectors. With 159 counties, Georgia has a lot of unsecured government buildings.

And more ominously, sheriffs say one provision will essentially make licensing meaningless.

“If I’m out on patrol tonight, and I see a guy in a high-crime, drug traffic area – a straight thug with a pistol stuck in his back pocket - I will not be able to ask that individual if he has a license to carry a gun,” said Howard Sills, the sheriff of Putnam County.

He added, “If you’re going to have that language in there, there’s no point in even having a license.”

Electioneering On Sine Die

Lawmakers presided over a quick legislative session. That’s because they are all up for re-election later this year. And none of them, and that includes Gov. Deal, could raise money while the legislature was in session.

Deal, in an interview, said the election had little impact on the session, and that lawmakers passed a solid budget and key pieces of legislation.

But his gubernatorial challenger, state Sen. Jason Carter, called the session “visionless.”

Voters will weigh in on that issue, come November.