Leaders focusing on social issues
by Errin Haines and Dorie Turner
Associated Press Writers
March 08, 2012 11:39 PM | 492 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ATLANTA — Several pieces of legislation didn’t survive a key deadline at the Legislature, as lawmakers focused heavily on socially conservative and other issues that will likely be popular back home on the campaign trail.

While lawmakers passed a range of bills on issues such as guns, abortion and drug testing for the unemployed, other key pieces of legislation addressing ethics reform, education and alternative energy were left behind.

Wednesday’s flurry of activity came on the deadline for bills to pass at least one chamber of the Legislature to remain on this year’s agenda. Lawmakers now have 10 days left to approve or reject those bills.

Among those bills that didn’t make the cut was legislation to cap lobbyist spending on lawmakers at $100 and ban public officials and their family members from serving on the state ethics board or holding government contracts.

Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry said he was disappointed the Legislature failed to tackle ethics — a move that he said ignores the desires of constituents.

“I think lobbying is essential to the process, particularly in a state Legislature where officials do not have large staffs and are part-time legislators,” Perry said. “The problem we have in Georgia is lobbyists become people who are paid to entertain and sway legislators.”

When asked about the outlook for bills that would tighten ethics rules, Rep. Joe Wilkinson, the chairman of the Ethics Committee, suggested legislation could still move in the House. He would not offer additional details.

It’s unlikely any effort backed by Wilkinson would include hard caps on lobbyist spending since the Republican lawmaker says those caps would merely drive that spending underground.

“It’s a 40-day session,” he said.

No effort truly fails, even if it is not passed by at least one chamber by the 30th day of the General Assembly’s 40-day session. That deadline, called Crossover Day, came Wednesday.

Even so, a seemingly failed bill can be resurrected if it is inserted into legislation that did not pass. And some committees are exempt from the 30-daydeadline, meaning fresh legislation could still move.

On education, there were a number of bills that didn’t make it through, including one that would expand the state’s school voucher program. It’s the fifth year in a row GOP leaders have failed to expand the program that gives taxpayer-funded stipends to special needs students to attend private schools.

The measure was seen by Senate Democrats as a way to pressure them into voting for a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to create and fund charter schools, even if they’ve been rejected by local school districts. Senate Democrats have refused to vote for the bill, which needs at least two members of the minority caucus to pass with a two-thirds majority.

The debate over the charter schools amendment has been contentious, and Republicans have been looking for ways to pick up votes and seeking alliances with urban Democrats.

“The Democratic party claims to be for the folks who have no options, yet in this case, the kids are in the failing school systems and their parents are trying to find a way to have a better school,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, a Republican from Lyons. “It’s like, this should be your issue, this is in your district and these are your people that don’t have good options.”

The charter schools amendment was not subject to the Day 30 deadline because it had already passed the House last month. The Senate has until the end of the session to pass it. If approved, it would go before voters in November.

Other education legislation that did not make it through Crossover Day includes a measure raising the dropout age and amending the state rule that requires school districts to spend at least 65 percent of state money in the classroom. The measure would have simply expanded the definition of a classroom expense, though Gov. Nathan Deal’s education finance commission has recommended that the 65 percent rule be repealed entirely to give districts more flexibility.

Another measure that failed would have created a High School Athletics Overview Committee. Two Senate resolutions failed, one that would urge school districts to put healthy options in vending machines and another that would urge the state Department of Education to develop a course on teen dating violence.

Other issues that didn’t pass the Senate included legislation that would’ve allowed third party providers to install solar panels on private property. It stalled amid objections from the state’s main electricity provider, Georgia Power.

Sponsors of Senate Bill 401 considered attaching the bill to another energy proposal, but ultimately lacked support in the days leading up to Crossover Day. That may still be a vehicle for the bill to pass before the close of the Legislature.

House lawmakers rejected a bill that would have prevented homeowner associations from outright banning solar panels in their neighborhoods but would have still allowed some restrictions on where the panels could be placed.

The issue triggered a debate over property rights.

Supporters said homeowners should be able to have control over their own lots, including by installing solar panels. Opponents argued that solar panels that stick out can decrease the value of nearby homes.

While some items were dropped, there were important bills that needed to be addressed, said Debbie Dooley, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. Dooley acknowledged that politics did play a role.

“I think it would be disingenuous to say it did not play some type of consideration,” Dooley said. “But I think a lot of (the socially conservative legislation) is something other states have passed and they wanted to make sure made the cut.”
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