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Guns fail, ethics bill passes on Legislature's final night

And there was a little something about a $19.9 billion state budget

The final night of the Georgia General Assembly always has something of a party atmosphere. After a dinner break during which senators, House members, Gold Dome staffers and lobbyists sit at communal tables in the soaring lobby of the state Capitol and feast on donated barbecue and sweet tea, everyone goes back upstairs and gets down to business—more or less.

While high-ranking members of both chambers hole up in back rooms negotiating over details in contested legislation, the rank-and-file are saying their goodbyes for another year, tweeting like fifth-graders with ADHD, or milling around the mezzanine to make small talk with their favorite lobbyists.

Last night, even Kasim Reed could be found hanging out just outside the Senate chamber, where he served for six years before leaving to run for Atlanta mayor. Reed said he wasn't there to watch any particular bills, but just to soak in the energy of Sine Die.

While festive, the Legislature's waning hours are also a time when some of the most controversial and important bills—including, typically, the state budget—receive their final comeuppance.

And it's a great time for scuttlebutt. At around 10 p.m. last night, a lobbyist told me he'd heard from a House member that the twin gun bills, SB 101 and HB 512, were dead. Still, Alice Johnson, head of Georgians for Gun Safety remained camped out in the Rotunda, waiting to see the last nail driven into the legislation she'd been fighting all session.

Finally, a half-hour before the mandated midnight ending of the session, a reworked version of SB 101 lands on House members' desks. Since the rules call for lawmakers to have at least an hour to look over an amended bill before taking a vote, the legislation would be stalled unless its chief proponent, Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, could get a two-thirds majority to suspend the rules.

In the end, that hurdle proved too high and Powell was left at the podium sputtering his disappointment with senators who balked at letting college kids pack heat on campus and suggesting that political destruction awaited his colleagues who hadn't made every effort to appease the pro-gun lobby.

But don't worry; the bill will automatically come back next year.

Some of the biggest cheers of the night came for the unanimous passage of HB 142, Speaker David Ralston's pet omnibus ethics bill, which, among other provisions, would place a $75 limit on lobbyist gifts. It will take a while before skilled lawyers are able to dissect the heavily amended legislation and locate loopholes. Still, the dip in freebies early in the session shows that lobbyists and lawmakers will pay attention when it appears that the political leadership and citizenry are at least semi-serious about reform.

Ralston also put the brakes on a House bill that had been amended to prohibit Georgia's health benefit plan from covering elective abortions for state employees. However, Gov. Nathan Deal let drop that he may find a way to achieve the same goal through administrative tweaks.

With a mere fifteen minutes to go until the clock ran out, Ralston told exhausted House members that they would next be debating SB 213—self-described as the Flint River Drought Protection Act—a wildly controversial bill that environmentalists labeled a thinly veiled water-grab designed to enrich certain private landowners and lobbyists and squeeze everyone else.

"Just kidding," said Ralston, who instead gaveled this year's Legislative session to an end. Ho, ho, what a kidder.