Last day could get contentious
by Sarah Fay Campbell
Today is the last day of the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly.
And what a day it promises to be.
The 40th day of the session, known as “sine die,” is always long, hectic and somewhat chaotic, but today, an influx of protestors might make it even more so.
On Tuesday, “Moral Monday” protesters advocating the expansion of Medicaid blocked the doors of the Georgia Senate and Gov. Nathan Deal’s office, and several were arrested.
State Senator Mike Crane, R-Newnan, says he is hearing that they plan to return today, along with Occupy Atlanta protesters. “It will be a big attempt to disrupt the process,” Crane said on Wednesday. “It should be a lively environment, to say the least.”
Much of the action on Day 40 is “agrees/disagrees.” That means the House and Senate are voting whether or not to agree to the changes made to bills by the other side. And often, those changes can be significant.
Bills that were presumed dead can be resurrected under different names. “It’s a very fluid environment these last few days of the session,” Crane said. “And nothing is ever done until the governor signs it,” he said.
“There are a lot of moving parts these last few days. The big challenge is keeping up with it and making sure we move things forward in the way we intend for them to move."
Crane expects “religious liberty” legislation to appear sometime today. “Even though it seemed to be killed in committee, killed in the House, that language is still out there,” he said. “There probably will be some opportunities, some bills that might come through that we could actually put that language on.”
If so, it will make for “some very interesting discussion.”
There has been a lot of misinformation about Georgia’s proposed religious liberty bills, Crane said. “Most people have very little understanding of what the language would really do." It essentially takes the language of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993, and applies it to the states. A U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that, while the federal government intended the law to apply to the states, the federal government didn’t have the right to impose it on the states, he said.
The language “basically says the state has to prove a compelling interest to even think about infringing upon truly held religious beliefs,” Crane said.
Medical cannabis language will likely get tacked onto a totally different bill as well.
House Bill 885, the original bill, was tabled in the Senate on Tuesday.
The House inserted language creating a medical cannabis study committee into another bill on Tuesday, said State Representative David Stover, R-Palmetto. There is a health care-related bill in the House that could be amended with the language decriminalizing possession of cannabidiol oil as long as it is obtained legally with a doctor’s prescription in another state. Various House members are trying to attach three separate amendments to that bill, but only one could make it, Stover said.
He thinks the medical cannabis bill will pass “as long as they can amend it into the bill they wanted to amend,” Stover said. “It had overwhelming support the first time around.”
Another controversial issue that will come up is the expansion of areas where guns can be carried. That language is in House Bill 60, and “it is going to end up in conference committee,” Stover said.
When the House and Senate can’t agree on a bill, a conference committee is appointed to work out the differences. Sometimes, what comes out of a conference committee can bear very little resemblance to the original bill.
An amendment approved in the Senate would allow “suppressors” to be used in hunting. “They are not silencers,” Stover said. “It’s plenty loud. It just suppresses it to the point that you don’t lose your eardrums when you shoot the rifle."
Another big change would allow guns in churches. The Senate version, which Stover and many other House members aren’t happy about, would require churches to “opt in” if they want to allow guns. They would rather churches opt out if they don’t want guns to be carried. The bill would also clarify the regulations regarding carrying guns in bars. You can already carry a gun in a bar, Stover said, “but it is very confusing as to what you can and can’t do.”
The items referred to in the bill aren’t just firearms, but also knives over a certain length, and several other types of weapons.
When it comes to sine die, “we don’t know what is going to end up in conference committees and then we don’t know what that looks like until the very last minute,” said Crane.
Crane would like to see some changes made to the way the Senate works so there can be more openness and senators would have more time to review bills before voting on them. “They don’t give us enough of a heads-up to see what is coming up,” Crane said.
For some of the leadership, he thinks that “to them it’s more like a poker game and you don’t want to show your cards.”
Even though it’s hectic, “I enjoy it,” Crane said. “I like the challenge of trying to protect [Georgians] from the unintended consequences.”
“Not everything they do is malevolent. Some of it is just poorly conceived,” he said. A lot of the laws put forth this year have been attempts at “fixing poorly written laws.”
And “things get poorly written when they’re done on day 39 and 40."