Number of issues before lawmakers on Crossover Day
by Christina A. Cassidy, Associated Press
March 02, 2014 11:05 PM | 1014 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ATLANTA — Today marks a key deadline as bills must pass either the House or Senate to remain active for the last 10 days of the session. Known as Crossover Day, it marks the 30th day of the 40-day session.

Major bills such as the budget and foster care reform have already cleared this hurdle so they will not be on the agenda.

However, a number of other bills including medical marijuana and civil forfeiture reform, must be dealt with by the end of today or they are considered dead for the rest of the session.

There are some exceptions, when language from a bill shows up in the last few days as a part of another bill that already passed one chamber. That is considered unlikely, however, for major policy proposals.

The following is a rundown of key issues to watch today.

Medical marijuana

A bill to bring a form of medical marijuana to Georgia under certain circumstances has passed a key committee vote and is expected to come up for a vote today on the House floor.

House Bill 885, also known as “Haleigh’s Hope Act,” is named after Haleigh Cox, a young girl who suffers from a medical condition that causes severe seizures. Republican Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) has said he was spurred to draft the bill after meeting with her and her parents. The bill has gained momentum in large part due to Cox’s mother and other parents who have lobbied lawmakers.

The bill would revive a long-dormant research program allowing academic institutions to distribute medical cannabis to those suffering from specific medical conditions.

The cannabis oil would be administered orally in a liquid form, and Peake has been adamant it would not open the door to recreational use of marijuana in the state. He has said the cannabis oil is low in THC, the active ingredient that produces the marijuana high.

A major question has been access since federal regulations block cannabis from crossing state lines. Peake recently revised the bill to allow approved academic medical centers in the state to grow it. The Georgia Sheriff’s Association, which supported the initial version, is reviewing the revised bill before deciding whether to take a position. The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia hasn’t taken a position on the bill, which drew at least 80 co-sponsors in the House including a handful of Republicans in leadership positions.

Health care

A bill with the backing of House Republican leadership would give the General Assembly the authority to decide whether the state should expand Medicaid under the federal health care law.

House Bill 990 is co-sponsored by House Speaker David Ralston and Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, both Republicans, and is expected to receive a vote today.

The bill would essentially negate Gov. Nathan Deal’s ability to expand Medicaid, something the Republican governor has already refused to do under the federal health care law. In addition, the Republican-controlled House and Senate are unlikely to vote in favor of expansion.

Democrats oppose the move, saying it puts off expansion at least another year.

Supporters of the bill, including Deal, say lawmakers should have a say over a policy decision with a significant effect on the state budget.

Meanwhile, a bill known as the “Georgia Health Care Freedom Act” could also come up for a vote. House Bill 707 would prohibit the state from using money or resources to advocate for Medicaid expansion or to establish a health exchange under the federal health care law.

Civil forfeiture

An effort to overhaul Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws stalled last year amid objections from law enforcement and could face the same fate again.

Rep. Wendell Willard, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, pre-filed House Bill 1 back in November 2012 with the goal of adding certain procedures for the handling of assets seized by law enforcement and increasing reporting.

He revised the bill this year to address some of the concerns, working with the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia and earning their support.

Under the revised bill, the state’s burden of proof would remain the same, along with the $25,000 threshold under which authorities can seize assets without judicial approval.

Willard (R-Sandy Springs) had initially sought to raise the burden of proof and lower the threshold to $5,000. His bill passed out of committee Feb. 7, but has yet to be scheduled for a House vote. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said the group remains opposed to the bill.

Abortion

A bill to restrict abortion coverage in the state’s federally run health care exchange is scheduled to reach the Senate floor today.

In the past few years, nearly half the nation’s states have passed laws prohibiting abortion coverage in health insurance plans offered by the new state health exchanges, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The group notes the federal health care law maintains existing restrictions that prohibit federal funds from being used for abortion services except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the woman is at risk.

Senate Bill 98 also prohibits any state employee health plan from offering abortion coverage except in the case of a medical emergency.

Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal worked with the board of the Department of Community Health to implement a policy banning coverage of abortions in the state employee plan unless the life of the mother is in danger. The bill would put that action into law.

Immigration

Legislators have largely avoided bills having to do with illegal immigration since passing a sweeping crackdown in 2011, but two pieces of legislation have passed committee and could come up for a vote in the Senate today.

Senate Bill 404 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.

Meanwhile, Senate Resolution 1031 would propose a constitutional amendment to declare English as the official language of the state of Georgia and would require 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.

If the resolution gets a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature, the proposed constitutional amendment would be on the ballot for voters to consider.

Rideshare regulations

Rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft are fighting legislation that would regulate their services.

Proponents of Republican Rep. Alan Powell’s bill say it would impose minimum safety and other standards on rideshare drivers and vehicles.

The ridesharing companies, which allow drivers to order a ride using their cell phones, say the proposed rules are really meant to make it tougher for them to enter the market in Atlanta and protect existing taxi and limousine companies.

Martin Luther King statue

A bill with bipartisan support would call for a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to be placed on the grounds of the Capitol or another prominent location.

House Bill 1080 has several sponsors including Rep. Calvin Smyre (R-Columbus), House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) and House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal (R-Bonaire). The bill has passed out of committee and is expected to reach a vote in the House today.

Earlier, Gov. Nathan Deal had said he would work to find a way to honor King at the Capitol. Currently, a portrait of King is the only tribute.

Medical malpractice reform

A bill to reform the state’s medical malpractice system has yet to advance and is unlikely to come up for a floor vote today.

Senate Bill 141, also known as the “Patient Injury Act,” would move medical malpractice claims out of the courts and into an administrative system. It would establish a Patient Compensation Board within the Department of Community Health to oversee the system and patients would submit claims directly to an Office of Medical Review.

Lawmakers studied the measure over the summer but it has not moved out of committee. The Medical Association of Georgia and the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association oppose the reform, saying it will increase costs.

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