Legislative Notebook: Veterans Court wins Senate vote

February 24, 2014 

There are several kinds of so-called “accountability courts” in Georgia: drug courts set up to work with recovering addicts; family courts well-versed in divorce; and now, maybe a standardized framework for veterans courts to be staffed by people familiar with military life and ailments like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veterans charged with less serious and nonviolent crimes, if they live in a place that sets up such a court, would be eligible for special judicial supervision, mental health treatment, drug testing and other measures meant to curb recidivism by such care, rather than punishment.

The framework is set up in Senate Bill 320 by state Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus and passed the Senate unanimously on Monday. It now moves to the House.

A handful of jurisdictions, like Bibb County Superior Court, already have such programs.

House approves animal cruelty update

Animal abuse that results in the creature’s death is already a felony in Georgia, and a new bill would make failure to take care of an animal a felony as well.

“What we’re hearing from prosecutors ... is a lot of starvation cases and neglect,” said House Bill 863 author state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna.

The bill also makes it a felony to torture an animal or poison it, even if it does not result in the animal’s severe injury or death.

More than one conviction of animal cruelty could result in up to 10 years imprisonment, doubling the current penalty. “This bill has no opposition,” said Golick, almost accurately, ahead of a 166-1 vote in the state House on Monday.

The bill now moves to the Senate.

O’Neal questions tax cap move

The state Senate by 42-11 on Monday approved asking voters in a statewide referendum if there should be a ban on income tax increases.

But there’s already an income tax cap in Georgia, said Bonaire tax attorney and House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, and it comes to 6 percent, by law.

Then, deploying subtle parliamentary sarcasm, “I wasn’t aware that they were originating tax bills over there, ‘cause I’m not sure the Constitution allows it,” he said.

Only the House can propose tax bills, according to the state Constitution.

But Senate Resolution 415 sponsor and Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, said his is a “resolution,” not a “bill,” so it’s legit.

Yet a cap would be a nice thing to talk about on the stump this year, as all House and Senate members are up for re-election, including the handful of Democrats attracted to the measure. And some Republicans might suspect the question would draw tax-skeptical GOP voters to the polling booth.

But if O’Neal still has questions, chances will be dimmed for House passage.

Kidd busts closed wheelchair entrance

Over the weekend, the main public first-floor entrance to the state Capitol building was locked up and closed off from the inside, with the public redirected upstairs to the second floor entrance.

That’s a wheelchair accessible entrance they closed, said state Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville.

“One more hurdle has been created to make the state building less accessible,” and just a week after Disability Day at the Capitol too, said Kidd, who uses a wheelchair himself.

Hours after Kidd made the comments on the House floor Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal’s office backtracked.

“The door is back to normal now and will stay that way through the Legislative session,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson wrote in an email. Though there have been a few “unnerving incidents” of people roaming that area by Deal’s staff offices, he said, “we want to make sure we work out any glitches that might pose a hurdle for our disabled community.”

The four-story, 19th century building has been fitted with some elevators but restrooms are still tight, there’s no Braille signage and some rooms are accessible by stairs only.

-- Maggie Lee

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