Sine Die 2016 recap: MARTA expansion, rape kits, grand juries, and medical marijuana

Lawmakers toil until after midnight—and “religious freedom” bedlam ensues
Sine Die

Max Blau

Around 12:30 early Friday morning, hundreds of state lawmakers and staffers—some exhausted, others giddy—crowded into the House chamber of the state Capitol. On cue, they tore up the dead bills on their desks, tossed the paper in the air, and shouted “Sine Die!” to conclude a nearly 15-hour marathon of legislative sausage-making.

Earlier this week, lawmakers performed their sole constitutional duty: approving next year’s state budget. At $23.7 billion, it’s the largest in Georgia’s history and includes a 3-percent pay raise for state employees and teachers. Legislators then turned their attention to other measures, such as letting Atlantans decide whether they want to raise taxes for transit, requiring police forces to process untested rape kits, and reforming grand juries. If you didn’t keep track of what bills lived and died in the session’s final days, we’ve got you covered.

Seven bills that made it to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk:

You’ll have a chance to vote for MARTA expansion (if you live in Atlanta): Headed into the 2016 session, MARTA officials swung for the fences in pushing an $8 billion transit expansion plan that called for new rail lines north along Ga. 400, northeast of Emory University, and east along I-20 toward Stonecrest Mall. The move was bold, considering that the transit agency had long served as the Gold Dome’s whipping boy; thanks to CEO Keith Parker’s improbable turnaround, though, they had a shot. But the proposal fell apart when north Fulton officials wanted some of the money to go to building more roads. Out of the larger proposal’s ashes, a measure was crafted to let Atlanta voters decide whether to raise the sales tax by half of one percent to fund future transit projects such as light-rail expansion and the BeltLine’s continued construction. “This is good for the city of Atlanta, it’s good for the environment, it’s good for the region,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat. A few minutes before 9 p.m., the Senate voted 43-5 to send the measure to the governor, who’s expected to sign the bill.

Georgia’s untested rape kits will be tested: Last week state Sen. Renee Unterman, a Buford Republican, gained national notoriety by blocking a bill from state Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, that would have expedited the testing of rape kits by local police agencies—a measure designed to clear a large backlog of unprocessed evidence. However, thanks to some 11th-hour legislative maneuvering, Holcomb’s bill was revived. A showdown with Unterman seemed inevitable, but she eventually backed down and the bill sailed through the Senate with a 55-1 vote. (The lone “no” vote came from Tyrone Republican Marty Harbin.) The House, which had previously passed the bill unanimously, passed it once again and Holcomb received a standing ovation for corralling bipartisan support—and for having outmaneuvered a politician who claimed the issued had been “over-politicized.”

Police officers will no longer have special grand jury privileges: Over the past few years, a recent string of officer-involved shootings placed the spotlight on an apparent loophole in the state’s criminal justice laws. This Republican-sponsored bill will put an end of the controversial practice of allowing police officers facing criminal charges to sit through the full grand jury proceedings for their own cases. In addition, officers giving a statement to a jury will be subject to cross-examination. It’s a huge win for criminal justice activists who argued that the system was unfavorable to families of victims killed in police shootings.

You may now bring a stun gun onto a college campus: If carrying guns around the grounds of a public university wasn’t enough (see below), adults over the age of 18 will also be permitted to bring their Taser or stun gun to history class. Consider it “campus carry lite.”

Your officials won’t have to pay their outstanding ethics fines: When your town’s local mayor, commissioner, or school board member doesn’t file a campaign finance report—the document showing how they spent cash on the campaign trail—they get fined because, well, they broke the law. Thanks to a bill that passed, many of the 27,000 delinquent entries in the state ethics commission’s database between 2010 and 2014 could soon be expunged.

You will have a chance to create the city of South Fulton and Stonecrest (if you live in those areas): At 12:10 a.m., state Rep. Roger Bruce, an Atlanta Democrat, snuck through a bill that will let voters decide whether they want to create a new city of South Fulton. The measure, which was killed late in last year’s session thanks to Mayor Kasim Reed, is the latest cityhood effort in metro Atlanta’s continued balkanization. In addition, South DeKalb residents this November will also be able to cast ballots to create the city of Stonecrest, which would be located in the Lithonia area.

Three bills that died on Sine Die:

You won’t see Georgia’s medical marijuana laws expanded: Early in the legislative session, an effort from state Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican, to legalize the growing of medical marijuana stalled amid concerns that “Georgia would become like Colorado.” However, a watered-down version of the bill marched ahead that would have added seven new illnesses to the list of those already eligible for the state’s medical marijuana registry. The bill failed to make it up for a vote on the session’s final day. “Why the Senate would not help something that would help hundreds of citizens is beyond me,” Peake told WABE at the session ended.

You won’t see the end of the DeKalb County CEO position: In the wake of DeKalb County’s corruption scandals, two state lawmakers representing the county in the legislature sought to restructure county government and replace the CEO with an elected chairman. With both bills dead, DeKalb residents will now focus on the upcoming CEO’s race featuring Michael Thurmond and several lesser-known candidates. The election will be held later this year.

You won’t have another “religious freedom” bill to worry about: Around dinner time, a conference committee amended House Bill 904—a technical measure related to the state Department of Labor—to include an unrelated provision allowing workers to sue their employers if they violated their own nondiscrimination policies. The amendment is considered to represent a giant middle finger toward the many companies pushing for Deal to veto House Bill 757 (see below). Just a few hours later, however, the bill returned to the Senate floor without the amendment, thus averting another “religious freedom” bombshell. “This House is not going to be party in taking Georgia back,” House Speaker David Ralston said on the floor.

Two bills already sitting on the governor’s desk:

Will Gov. Deal sign Georgia’s polarizing “religious freedom” bill? Ah, yes, House Bill 757, the elephant in the Gold Dome. Since the bill passed in mid-March, progressive activists, sports teams, and business execs have lined up against the measure, arguing that it weakens local nondiscrimination laws. The “religious freedom” bill has sparked threats of boycotts over concerns that it would allow business owners to discriminate against Georgia’s LGBT population. If they act upon their threats, the NFL won’t select Atlanta for an upcoming Super Bowl, major film studios will cease in-state productions, and large employers will decamp for more inclusive pastures. Still, Deal offered no new insight on whether he’d sign the bill. “It is a difficult piece of legislation, and is one that I am looking at very carefully,” he told reporters.

Will university officials be able to keep guns off their campuses? After a couple of quiet years from Georgia’s gun lobby, state lawmakers approved a measure to let licensed gun owners who are 21 or older to carry their guns anywhere on public college campuses aside from dorms, frat houses, and sporting events. Upon the bill’s passage, Georgia’s public university presidents urged Deal to veto the measure over safety concerns. “I am deeply concerned that if this bill becomes law our campus will become less safe, not more safe,” Georgia State President Mark Becker wrote to faculty members earlier this month. To drive home that message, the gun-control group Moms Demand Action yesterday delivered boxes containing thousands of signed petitions to the governor’s office. Though Deal asked lawmakers to fix the bill, they chose not to, making it anybody’s guess what happens next.