Tuesday February 9th, 2016 12:56PM

Busy finish to Ga.'s annual legislative session

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) -- Eager to get campaigning, Georgia's lawmakers will wrap up an unusually quick legislative session Thursday, likely making decisions on whether to expand the places people can carry firearms and whether to support a medical marijuana program for the ill.

Equally important are the efforts that stall during the final days, a category that appears to include plans to privatize parts of the state's child welfare system and to pull back from national education standards.

By law, the legislators in Georgia's General Assembly meet for just 40 working days every year. The tight schedule means that state lawmakers invariably spend the final day of their session, called Sine Die, rapidly voting on dozens and dozens of bills until the clock strikes midnight. Any legislation not passed by then automatically fails for the year.

Lawmakers are in a hurry to get out of the Statehouse. They cannot raise campaign money for the upcoming primary and general elections while the General Assembly is meeting. Still, they will need to resolve several statewide issues - not to mention scores of local concerns - before early Friday morning. Here are a few of the big issues:


Patients suffering from illnesses including cancer and seizures could take a form of medical marijuana if Senate lawmakers vote to approve a pending proposal from the House of Representatives. The legislation from state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, would let certain patients take products derived from cannabis oil in the hope it will ease their symptoms. Peake said Georgia will not legalize the recreational use of marijuana.


For a second year, House and Senate lawmakers are approaching the end of their session in a rift over firearms legislation. Senior Republicans in the House proposed earlier this year eliminating a blanket prohibition on carrying guns in churches and bars. Their proposal would also allow school districts to arm their employees, which supporters say would deter attacks on teachers and students. Lawmakers in the Senate have historically been more cautious on the issue than their counterparts in the House.


Plans offered through Georgia's health insurance exchange could impose further restrictions on abortion coverage under a plan before House lawmakers. The federal health care law allows states to draft legislation prohibiting abortion coverage in qualified health plans. Supporters of the plan in Georgia say 24 states have already put the restrictions into place. Democrats oppose the bill, saying it infringes on a woman's right to choose.


Georgia would erect a statue to honor the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. under a plan likely to receive a final vote this week. The political legacy of the Atlanta-born clergyman was long politically charged in his native state. On the day of King's funeral in 1968, then-Gov. Lester Maddox refused to close the Capitol in King's honor and was angered when state flags were flown at half-staff. While there is a portrait of King in the Statehouse, there are more pictures, statues and other monuments depicting Confederate leaders and segregationists, though they were placed there years ago. Republican and Democrats have given the plan support by wide margins in earlier votes.


An effort to force Georgia to abandon national education standards appears to have politically collapsed. However, it is still too early to know for certain what legislation will fail for the year. Bills considered unlikely to pass sometimes surge forward as a result of the intense political negotiations that consume the final days of the legislative session. The plan from state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, would have prohibited Georgia from testing students on national academic standards, including Common Core. A House committee rejected a heavily revised version of Ligon's plan after education leaders spoke out against it.


Lawmakers in the House and Senate have conflicting plans to change Georgia's child welfare services after the deaths of several children. Senate lawmakers wanted to allow faith-and-community-based organizations to contract for services such as adoption, foster care and case management, while state officials would investigate child-abuse claims. But the House wanted to run a pilot privatization program before committing to larger changes. Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday created a council to study the state's child welfare program and signaled he wanted more time to study the issue. Assuming the General Assembly lets their proposals sit for this year, the debate could resume next year.
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