Monday February 8th, 2016 9:30AM
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Ga. GOP sticks close to election-year agenda

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) - The Republican leadership in the General Assembly has kept tight control of its election-year agenda, ensuring some of the more controversial bills have not reached the floor for a vote.

Monday was Crossover Day, a key legislative deadline for a bill to pass either the House or the Senate to stay alive for the last 10 days of the session. There are various reasons why some bills do not advance, including technical and legal concerns. Some simply run out of time to make it through the committee process, although bills can move quickly with the support of Republican leaders. This year, a bill to bring a form of medical marijuana to Georgia under certain circumstances wasn't even on the agenda before the session and it passed the House overwhelmingly in a floor vote Monday.

In an election year, the bills that hit the floor take on added importance. Lawmakers seek to vote on bills they want to campaign on, and scuttle those they do not. A pair of bills that were described by their Republican sponsors as protecting religious freedom met strong opposition from groups who said they were similar to recent legislation in Arizona allowing businesses to refuse service to gays. Delta Air Lines was among a group of businesses that opposed the bill.

``When you have headlines that read `anti-gay bill,' which is I think is completely unfair and misleading, that narrative is difficult to overcome,'' said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus.

McKoon's bill was not scheduled for a floor vote Monday despite passing out of committee.

``I'm not going to speculate as to the motivation, other than to say that when large businesses weigh in that make lots of campaign contributions and carry a lot of weight down here at the Capitol, they obviously are going to influence the debate,'' McKoon said.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, sought to resurrect his bill that would deny Georgia driver's licenses to immigrants who have been granted deferred action status, which allows them to stay in the country temporarily and get a work permit. Senate Bill 404 had not been scheduled for a floor vote Monday, so Heath tried to add the language of his bill to another piece of legislation. The effort met opposition from fellow Republicans and failed overwhelmingly.

Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, took the floor to speak against the bill, urging his colleagues to use wisdom and moderation. Afterward, Williams noted 30 of 38 Republicans in the Senate voted with him to defeat the measure.

``We have to have a position that understands the Hispanic population has made some great contributions,'' said Williams, adding Republicans want better border security and fixes to the federal guest worker program. ``There are things we can do that would help the party and frankly win some of the Hispanic support.''

Republicans are keenly aware that Democrats are seeking to capitalize on demographic changes in Georgia. There are a growing number of minorities as well as people moving in from other states that are not as conservative. In addition, two relatively well-known and well-financed Democrats are waging viable campaigns this year.

Michelle Nunn, former CEO of the nonprofit Points of Light and daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, is running for Georgia's open U.S. Senate seat. Meanwhile, state Sen. Jason Carter, an attorney and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, is challenging Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.

Deal and other top Republicans have spoken about the need to reach out to minorities and share the GOP's message. A big part of that is portraying the Republican brand as business-friendly with an emphasis on economic development. That could have taken a hit if lawmakers had approved a Senate resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to declare English as the official language of Georgia and requiring driver's license exams to be given only in English. Currently, the on-the-road driving test and the signs section of the written test are conducted in English only, but the written road rules section is offered in English and 11 other languages. That measure did not make it to a vote on the Senate floor.

House Speaker David Ralston said Republicans have put forward measures that are ``very inclusive and very fair.'' Among those was a bipartisan bill that passed overwhelming in the House Monday, calling for a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the Capitol or another prominent location.

Currently, a portrait of King is the only tribute while long-dead political leaders who supported segregation are honored with portraits or monuments, most erected decades ago. House Majority Leader Larry O'Neal co-sponsored the bill and took the floor to urge fellow Republicans to back it.

``Not only does it honor a truly great, great, great Georgian in his own hometown and home state and capital city, but my vision is ... it will become a shrine of achievement, a shining beacon for many people from all around the world to come see and enjoy,'' said O'Neal, R-Bonaire.
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