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Legislators are back but not for long

POSTED: January 13, 2014 8:01 p.m.

When House Speaker David Ralston sat down with reporters last week to discuss the new legislative session, he addressed the question that’s been on the mind of every Capitol denizen.


“People want to know, is it true we’re going to be in and out in a hurry?” Ralston said. “From a House perspective, that is certainly true.”


It’s true from a Senate perspective as well. The General Assembly session that kicked off on Monday should adjourn sometime around the middle of March, which would make it one of the quickest sessions in decades.


Some people might be disappointed because a short session means that legislators won’t have time to pass many bills.


On the other hand, it was our legislators who once passed a bill making it illegal to implant microchips in human beings without their consent — despite the fact there’s never been a reported instance of a state resident being forcibly microchipped. A short session with few bills may be the greatest blessing ever bestowed upon the people of Georgia.


The major reason for the abbreviated session is a federal court order requiring primary elections for federal offices (U.S. House and Senate seats) to be held on May 20, with the runoffs on July 22.


Because state law prohibits legislators and constitutional officers from accepting campaign contributions while the General Assembly is in session, lawmakers want to end the session  quickly so they can resume raising money and campaigning for those early primaries.


A short session means that the only bills assured of passage are the state budget and a measure that will shift the date of state and local elections to the same May 20 primary date as federal elections.


The budget could contain some good news for state employees and teachers in the form of a small pay raise. These folks have not had a salary increase in five years, so they may finally have a reason to celebrate the legislative session.


Bills that are controversial or involve complex issues are much less likely to come up for a vote because they would cause prolonged debates that endanger plans for an early adjournment.


For example, Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine) and several colleagues who want to kill Obamacare have introduced a bill that would prohibit state agencies from implementing any aspect of the Affordable Care Act.


The bill will probably get a respectful committee hearing but is not likely to come out for a vote on the House floor, where it would launch a never-ending fight between Democrats and Republicans.


Gov. Nathan Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage, which is a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, is strongly supported by the Republican majority in the Legislature. That means expansion is not going to happen this session, no matter how many people protest.


While legislators hold firm on the state’s rejection of Medicaid expansion, they could end up passing some bills that would result in more Georgians being admitted to hospital emergency rooms.


Lawmakers will seriously consider a bill that would expand the number of public places where guns can be legally carried to include college campuses, K-12 schools, and government buildings.


University System officials, who are fully aware that college students can be emotionally immature and prone to binge-drinking, oppose the idea of allowing these students to carry firearms on campus, but the legislative leadership appears ready to let the bill pass.


Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) introduced two measures last year that would legalize the sale and taxing of fireworks in Georgia. He plans to keep pushing for final passage of the legislation this year.


Georgia is not going to do what Colorado did and legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes, but the Legislature will at least take a look at easing restrictions on the medical use of the prohibited plant.


Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) plans to hold some committee hearings on medical marijuana and Ralston said he’s OK with the issue being discussed: “I have some concerns about it, quite frankly, but I think, let’s take the politics out of it and look at the science and hear the medical professionals.”


With guns, fireworks, and medical marijuana on the agenda, even a short legislative session can turn out to be an entertaining one.


Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at tcrawford@gareport.com.

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