Abortion, trauma, guns to highlight last day of legislative session

ATLANTA — An unlikely trio of issues — guns, abortions and trauma funding — are likely to dominate the debate today as the Georgia General Assembly meets for the 40th and final day of its 2010 session.

There’s a gun bill that would allow licensed gun owners to drink in bars and restaurants while carrying a concealed weapon.

There’s an abortion bill that could prove crucial in future legal efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.

And legislators are dusting off a $10 fee from last year to raise money for hospital and other emergency medical operations.

These bills seem likely to generate the most debate today, but things can change quickly as the Legislature sprints toward a constitutionally mandated midnight finish line. Dozens of other bills will likely be voted on by the House and Senate.

There’s also the matter of the state’s $17.4 billion budget for the coming year, which the House and Senate must finalize today. The differences between the two chambers’ budget proposals seem to be relatively minor, with the major issues worked out earlier this year. Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams said Wednesday budget writers for the two sides, and the governor’s office, were dickering over the state’s bond package, which is a list of construction projects the state would borrow money for.

“Not anything unusual. ...” Williams said of the talks. “We’ll get it done soon.”

There’s also the question of state funding for the sports and music halls of fame in Macon. The House deleted funding for them, and the Senate put it back in. That difference must be resolved, and will likely be tied to legislation that essentially puts the two museums up for sale over the next year and a half as the Legislature continues to wean the halls from state funding.

As for the gun issue, Senate Bill 308 awaits a vote in the House, having already passed the Senate. As it’s written now the bill would rework Georgia’s confusing “public gathering” laws and, among other things, make it legal for licensed gun owners to carry in bars, with the bar owner’s permission.

They’d also be able to drink while carrying in a bar or restaurant, though there’s a blanket state law against firing a gun while intoxicated.

The bill is on the House’s calendar for today and sponsoring state Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, said he expects a vote on the bill.

The abortion legislation is Senate Bill 529, which has ridden a roller-coaster of sorts the last few weeks. Anti-abortion advocates want to preserve language in the bill that specifically outlaws abortions performed on the basis of the fetus’ race or sex. They say this would foster a legal challenge that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to strike down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 court decision that established abortion rights in this country. But Speaker of the House David Ralston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that he thinks this language is unconstitutional, and he’s pushing to amend the bill. Ralston’s language would still outlaw coerced abortions, but not in a way that would foster anti-abortion activists’ ultimate goal: an end to Roe v. Wade.

The difference is crucial and an already tense battle over the bill is likely to rage again today.

The trauma fee is contained in Senate Resolution 277, which passed the Senate last year but never cleared the House. After laying dormant most of this session, it was added to the House debate calendar Tuesday evening, only for the House to adjourn without taking it up.

That leaves the resolution available for debate today.

It would set up a statewide referendum in November to ask voters whether they want to pay an extra $10 for vehicle tags, with the $90 million or so that would raise funding trauma operations. The money would flow into a trust fund that could be used to subsidize emergency rooms around the state, buy ambulances and helicopters and establish new facilities to get medical help to people in rural areas quicker.

The Legislature approved a new tack-on fine for “super speeders” last year, and the plan is to use that money for the same purposes. But the super speeder fines go into the general treasury and the governor and Legislature can spend them how they see fit each year. Senate Resolution 277 would allow voters to change the state constitution and dedicate funds from the tag fee specifically for trauma operations.

This effort has heavy Macon connections. The Medical Center of Central Georgia stands to gain if it passes because it has one of the state’s few high-level trauma operations. And Dennis Ashley, the hospitals director of trauma services, chairs the commission that doles out trauma funds. Ben Hinson, owner of Macon-based Mid Georgia Ambulance Service, is also on the commission.