ATLANTA (AP) | Georgia lawmakers head into the final two weeks of the legislative session with a lot of unfinished business, including a state budget for the coming financial year. Also waiting to be decided are bills with particular interest to the University of Georgia community, and to the burgeoning beer-brewing industry in Athens.
The budget-writing process has remained uncontroversial this year, with few major differences in the $49 billion proposals advanced by the House and Senate. Both chambers have agreed on 2 percent salary increases for teachers and some other state employees and a 20 percent increase for law enforcement officers with state agencies, including the State Patrol.
The plan for the financial year starting July 1 also includes more than $1 billion to finance construction projects around the state, including for local schools and colleges, a new crime lab in Savannah and completion of a new campus for Lanier Technical College in Hall County.
A state budget is the only piece of legislation that lawmakers are constitutionally required to approve each year. Leaders from each chamber are expected to present their compromise budget proposal Monday morning.
The General Assembly plans to adjourn on March 30, with only five days of floor votes scheduled by the House and Senate before wrapping up the session. Here’s a look at some of the closely watched proposals:
—Guns on campus: The Senate could vote this week to allow licensed gun owners to carry concealed handguns on public college campuses. The measure would allow anyone age 21 and up to carry a concealed handgun on campus with a state-issued permit. Student housing, sports facilities and child care facilities would be exempt.
Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a similar bill last year, but hasn’t given a firm response to lawmakers’ latest attempt.
Senate approval would send the bill back to the House, which approved a version earlier this month on party lines. The Senate added an exemption for buildings where high school-age students attend classes at technical colleges under a state program.
—Campus sexual assault: A House proposal limiting colleges’ disciplinary hearings on sexual violence still awaits action in the Senate. Advocacy groups that work with crime victims warn that it will discourage reporting of sexual assault and clash with federal requirements for campuses under civil rights law.
Supporters, including sponsoring Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, argue that campus proceedings have violated the rights of students accused of assault. Ehrhart wants colleges to notify law enforcement and let them decide whether to investigate or recommend criminal charges.
A Senate subcommittee plans to consider the bill for the first time on Tuesday.
—Private ‘sanctuary’ campuses: The Senate could vote this week on a bill revoking state funding for scholarships and research if any private colleges don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Senate approval would send the bill to the governor. The House approved the bill last month on a party-line vote.
A number of colleges across the country have embraced the “sanctuary campus” label since President Donald Trump’s election, but none are in Georgia. Ehrhart, who sponsored the bill in the House, said he wants to keep it that way.
—Beer and liquor sales: The Senate will likely send a bill to the governor this week allowing craft breweries and distilleries to sell directly to their customers. Those businesses are currently regulated by prohibition-era laws that prohibit direct sales by requiring the manufacturers to go through a distributor.
—Struggling schools: The Senate’s Education Committee plans to vote Monday afternoon on a bill giving the state more power to intervene in struggling schools.
The House has already passed a version of the bill creating a “chief turnaround officer” to work with struggling schools. The new position would be appointed by the State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor, with input from the elected state superintendent and education groups.
The bill still prescribes dramatic consequences for schools that show no improvement after two years of state intervention or that refuse a “turnaround” contract with the state. In both cases, state officials could decide to remove staff, turn the school into a charter or allow parents to enroll their children elsewhere.
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, has made several changes to the Senate version, including giving schools an additional year to make progress before those consequences can kick in.
—Opioid treatment: A series of bills introduced by each chamber aim to address the growing opioid epidemic.
Two bills would legalize over-the-counter sale of the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
Other bills will expand the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which aims to prevent doctor-hopping and weed out physicians who are over-prescribing. Lawmakers want to require all physicians to register and use the database; currently, participation is voluntary.
Another bill will increase regulations on narcotic treatment programs that use drugs such as methadone to treat opioid addicts.
—Medical canabis: The House and Senate recently negotiated a compromise to expand access to medical cannabis oil.
Under the new proposal, six new diagnoses will be added to the list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis oil including autism, AIDS, Tourette’s syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, anyone in a hospice program, regardless of diagnosis, will be allowed access to marijuana oil that’s low on THC, the chemical responsible for the marijuana high.
The revised bill has the approval of leadership in both chambers but has yet to be approved by either in its current form.