Georgia lawmakers almost done for the session — here’s some of what’s still in the running

By Maggie Lee

On Thursday night, it became a lot clearer what just might, and what probably won’t, become state law in Georgia this year.

It was “Crossover Day:” the 28th day of the 40-day annual state legislative session under the Gold Dome.

By that day, a bill needs to pass the state House or the state Senate to have much of a real chance of becoming law this year.

Some of the things that still have a chance? A near-total ban on abortions, a state takeover of the airport, medical cannabis cultivation and more.

Approved in one or the other chamber. These things are halfway to the governor’s desk:

Women in Georgia would be unable to get a legal abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, once a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, under a bill that scraped through the state House on Thursday night.

“As legislators we’ve got to choose, do we want to let the child in the womb, a living distinct human being be torn from their mother,” said Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, as he presented his House Bill 481.

Georgia's state Capitol. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Georgia’s state Capitol. Credit: Kelly Jordan

But for the mainly Democratic opponents, it’s a bill that forces birth on women who have any number of reasons for wanting to terminate a pregnancy safely. Right now, Georgia law allows abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

It’s important enough to numbers of Democrats on the state House floor that they turned their backs on Setzler as he spoke — a thing that hasn’t happened in recent memory. And numbers of those same Democrats in turn spoke against the bill.

“Banning abortion doesn’t end abortion. It just makes it less safe,” said state Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex.

Some of the opponents predicted a costly legal battle if the bill becomes law.

The bill passed 93 to 73, mainly on party lines. That’s quite close for a chamber that’s usually near unanimity.

The House also passed a hate crimes law, which would increase penalties for crimes motivated by “the victim’s “actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability.”

For simple misdemeanors, the increased penalty starts at three extra months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000. For felonies, a hate crime gets two years or more extra time on a sentence.

House Bill 426 passed 96 to 64.

Medical cannabis cultivation got a “yes” in the state House. That would be cultivation only by 10 companies that get a license, and they can only make a certain liquid and they can only sell it to patients who already have a medical cannabis card from the state Department of Public Health. So don’t imagine caregivers cultivating in their personal yards or greenhouses under House Bill 324. Imagine instead secure greenhouses attached to lab-like spaces for making liquid, and shipping labeled bottles to one of up to 60 dispensaries statewide.

The state Senate OK’d a change in ownership of Atlanta’s city-owned airport — by approving the creation of a state board to take over Hartsfield-Jackson. Supporters say the way the city is set up puts too much airport contracting power in the hands of mayors, and that mayors have abused that power. There were some optics helpful to this side: The vote happened the day after the feds indicted a city contractor on bribery allegations. Supporters also say that a state-run authority would be the best way to operate any second major commercial airport that some would like to see somewhere at some time.

Atlanta City Council, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Atlanta’s state lawmakers have been pretty much outraged by Senate Bill 131. They point out that the airport is big, busy, and efficient; and they want to know why the state is after this airport.

The House OK’d a rework of how the state plans and oversees transit, now including an amendment for some metro Atlanta programs.

A new state Department of Mobility and Innovation would get set up, and take over transit operations that are now spread among other state agencies, under House Bill 511. Outside of metro Atlanta, the bill also involves setting up multi-county “mobility zones” with their own planners. Inside the 13-county metro Atlanta, The ATL would still be the umbrella transit agency, but under this “GMobile” for administrative purposes.

One thing GMobile would do is fund “mobility” projects. For example, the bill contains one pilot program to pass out travel vouchers to people in the counties where unemployment is the highest and incomes are the lowest — those vouchers could be used to pay for travel to and from school or work.

Another pilot program would provide up to three grants up to $500,000 each in metro Atlanta to private companies providing “micro-transit.”

The money would come from taxes (which are already in Georgia law) on services like Uber, Lyft, taxis and limos.

The state Senate approved giving Gov. Brian Kemp the power to apply for Medicaid and Obamacare dollars under Georgia-specific rules.

Called in shorthand “waivers” from Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, Kemp could approach the feds and propose some kind of support for subsidized health insurance or care for some people. It’s too early to say what those rules would be, who would be covered, for what conditions and how.

Senate Bill 106 contains no details except that Medicaid would not be extended to able-bodied individuals who are above the poverty line. Under the bill, the state would engage a consultant to figure out some waiver programs which Kemp could then take to the feds. Democrats have called for a Medicaid expansion to people up to 138 percent of the poverty line, but Kemp has called Medicaid a failed program.

These were not approved in either chamber. But barring any difficult legislative maneuvering, these won’t happen this year:

Cities and counties flipped out over a pair of bills that would have ended their communities’ rights to set home design standards — think cute little city districts where paint color, porches, roof materials and so on are all in harmony.

The fans of House Bill 302 and Senate Bill 172 said such standards drive up the cost of houses in an expensive world. But neither bill got a floor vote.

Supporters of a sales tax break on tampons and other feminine hygiene products won’t get that — but the cause of ending “period poverty” might get some funding instead. House Bill 8 didn’t get through committee hearings, but instead, House members proposed $500,000 to stock schools with hygiene products for low-income students.  Budget hearings are still underway.

An idea to extend help with Medicare premiums, deductibles and co-pays to more low-income seniors — those who have incomes above $12,384 but below about $18,500 — won’t become law. But the idea has taken the form of Senate Bill 185.

It and hundreds of other bills that didn’t get a hearing or vote this year will now lie dormant, but could be revived at the next legislative session, which starts in January, 2020.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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