Georgia lawmakers ready for Thursday night fights

mlee@macon.comMarch 19, 2014 

ATLANTA -- This year’s state legislative session ends Thursday night, with several contentious bills in the balance: medical marijuana, foster care privatization, drug tests for welfare recipients and a possible shortening of early voting periods.

Anything that doesn’t get agreement goes in the trash can.

Supporters of a bill that would decriminalize possession of a single type of liquid medicine derived from cannabis waited all day Tuesday for a Senate vote that never came. With the Legislature in recess Wednesday, Thursday is the last chance for approval this year.

“There is a very real chance that our bill gets caught in a game of tug-of-war,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, the author of House Bill 885. It aims to give Georgians access to a non-hallucinogenic medicine made from cannabis that’s used to treat pediatric seizures.

A Senate committee passed a version that would allow people to possess that liquid in Georgia if they go to a state like Colorado where it’s legal, get a prescription and have it filled there. But that version was amended to include a controversial bill to require insurance companies to cover pediatric autism treatment.

The full Senate scheduled House Bill 885 with the autism language on a list of 90 bills it planned to consider Tuesday and Thursday.

There’s little opposition to the principle of Georgia families accessing the medicine. The only policy debate is how to best make sure the bill is not an empty promise.

The House approved a version that called on the state’s five medical research universities to consider growing a single strain of marijuana and synthesizing the medicine. Both the plant and the compound are rich in cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not cause people to get high. It’s already approved for use in the United Kingdom.

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get another step forward today,” Peake said Tuesday night, “but I’m optimistic that we will still get a vote Thursday morning.”

Foster care privatization

Foster care privatization took two votes to pass the House, but the House finally approved a version that’s much more cautious than the Senate’s pitch to mandate bidding out services including family preservation and independent living. Senate supporters have argued that private organizations would provide better services than government.

But the House wants “a pilot program to look into if services should be privatized, and if so ... which should be,” said state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, the House sponsor of Senate Bill 350. The program would be set up for two years in parts of the state yet to be chosen.

The Senate seems ready to insist on their more-privatized version. It’s been edited into two unrelated House bills, which are both on Thursday’s Senate calendar.

Drug tests for welfare recipients

The Senate has scheduled Thursday debate on a bill to require drug tests of certain recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. If they stick to the plan, they will be looking at House Bill 772 by state Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, which allows program administrators to order such tests if they have “reasonable suspicion” that a client is using drugs.

It’s meant to skirt court rulings in other states that have said testing all TANF recipients amounts to unconstitutional suspicionless searches.

Early voting shortened?

Cities would be able to cut their early voting period from three weeks to one week, if the Legislature approves House Bill 891 by state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem. It’s on the Senate’s debate list. Proponents say early voting is a financial drain on cities. Opponents say the move would cut down voter participation.

Animal cruelty penalties

And there’s support for increasing penalties for animal cruelty, but there’s debate on what constitutes cruelty. Both the House and Senate require “adequate” food, water and habitat, but they differ on how to define “adequate.” Failure to provide “adequate” care on a second offense would be worth one to five years’ imprisonment in both versions of House Bill 863 by state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna. So would maliciously poisoning an animal, even a neighbor’s shrill dog.

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