Gun bill passes, consolidation, abortion bills fail in Legislature’s final hour

ATLANTA — Georgia voters will decide whether to tack an extra $10 onto license plate renewal fees to improve trauma care in Georgia, and the General Assembly voted Thursday to ban texting while driving.

Thursday was the last day of the 2010 legislative session.

The Legislature also gave final passage to a long-discussed series of property tax reforms designed to hold down assessed values and make it easier for property owners to appeal those values. They voted to toughen state regulations on massage parlors, cracking down on prostitutes and parlor owners that use massage as a cover.

Shortly after 11 p.m. the House and Senate passed gun legislation that redefines and clarifies where licensed gun owners can carry their firearms. Bars would be OK, if the bar owner approves. So would college parking lots, so long as the gun is left in the owner’s car.

College campuses themselves would still be off limits.

A major abortion bill, which advocates hoped would set up a challenge to Roe v. Wade, died Thursday as the legislature’s constitutionally mandated midnight deadline came and went.

All the bills that passed this session head to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature, which would make them law. But the trauma measure doesn’t need the governor’s signature because it will be decided by a statewide referendum in November.

If voters give their approval, the roughly $90 million the new fee would raise would flow through a fund set up by the state to subsidize high-level emergency rooms, including The Medical Center of Central Georgia’s in Macon. It also would be used to buy new ambulances and other improvements designed to speed accident victims to the care they need.

State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, has pushed for trauma funding for several years.

“After four years I am grateful that the General Assembly has seen the wisdom to do something constructive that will save lives,” he said Thursday.

Staton also was heavily involved in strengthening the state’s massage parlor regulations, primarily to crack down on their proliferation in and around Macon by upping the penalties for charging for a massage without a license. Staton’s bill also makes it clear that local governments can pass more stringent rules, which Macon and Bibb County have been considering.

The text-messaging ban also had a Macon connection, with state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, pushing hard for it. There were a lot of ups and downs, but in the end the Legislature passed a pair of bills dealing with drivers and cell phones.

House Bill 23 is an outright ban on using a cell phone for most teenage drivers. Senate Bill 360 bans only texting while driving, but for all drivers regardless of age. Violators would face a $150 fine and one point against their license.

Neither bill would affect the use of CB radios or Global Positioning System navigation devices, but no one would be allowed to send or read a text message, surf the Internet or check e-mail while driving if Perdue signs Senate Bill 360 into law. Perdue’s communications director, Bert Brantley, said Thursday that the governor will have to study the bills, but “generally he is fine with the concept.”

Also Thursday, Perdue, who is in his last year in office, addressed the House and Senate, congratulating legislators on “one of the most productive sessions you could have had.” The governor also thanked them for making difficult choices in cutting the budget. He said Georgia has fewer employees now than it had in 2001, but there are 1.7 million more people living here now.

“Team Georgia’s working smarter and harder than ever, and they’re delivering,” he said.

The final day of the session also saw the retirement of several area legislators, state Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, who is running for governor, state Rep. Jim Cole, R-Forsyth, who is leaving the state House to be Mercer University’s athletics director, state Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, who plans to run for Congress, and state Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, who is running for insurance commissioner.

In addition to the high-profile bills and farewell speeches, the House and Senate sent dozens of lesser-known bills to Perdue on Thursday for his signature. Hundreds more were slated to die, barring a vote in the General Assembly’s waning hours. Among them was Senate Bill 335, which would have allowed voters to approve fraction-of-a-penny sales taxes to support the arts. Also dead: the push to hold a November vote to consolidate Macon and Bibb County’s governments.

Among the bills that did gain final passage Thursday:

n Senate Bill 206: Requires the governor to include a breakdown of various tax exemptions on the state’s books with his annual budget report. Legislators have questioned the effectiveness of these exemptions, many of which are meant to spur economic development, for years. But they also continued to approve new ones.

n Senate Bill 238: Gives governors and former governors the power to marry couples.

n Senate Bill 244: Clarifies that family members may perform basic health care services for mentally ill and disabled people without having to be a registered nurse or physician.

n Senate Bill 299: Rolls back some of the state’s zero-tolerance policies dealing with weapons in schools. There are still strict penalties for bringing a weapon into a school, but students who bring other items, such as long key chains, that have been construed as weapons in the past, would not be dealt with as harshly under this bill.

n Senate Bill 316: Makes it easier for disabled people under the age of 65 to get Medicare supplemental insurance.

n Senate Bill 333: Prohibits homeowners associations and other groups from passing covenants that outlaw flying the American flag on poles up to 20 feet high. Associations that already have these rules are grandfathered in and not affected.

n Senate Bill 367: Allows adult friends or neighbors to give consent for a medical procedure on an incapacitated friend if no family member can be found to do so.

n Senate Bill 418: Sets up a database of prescriptions for pain medications in an effort to ferret out illegal use.

n Senate Bill 435 - Initially created a couple of grant programs to combat diabetes, but legislation that would require tanning salons to register with the state, not serve minors under 14 years old and require parental permission before tanning 14-18 year olds, was tacked on. The bill does not require salons to post notice that tanning beds can cause cancer, as previous legislation would have ordered.

n Senate Bill 454 - Increases licensing fees for video gambling machines and implements a new fee for store owners who have the machines in their stores, instead of just charging the machine owners.

n Senate Bill 474: Makes it clear that people can keep the body of a wild animal killed by a motor vehicle, unless it’s a protected species. Anyone keeping a bear carcass, though, must notify local law enforcement.

n Senate Bill 523: Essentially puts the state’s sports and music halls of fame in Macon up for sale. Over the next year the halls must look to Macon and Bibb County — or governments and groups in other parts of the state — willing to fund the halls. That would allow the state to stop subsidizing the halls, and it could mean they’d move out of Macon. The bill also reorganizes the board that decides who gets inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

n House Bill 1069: A tax bill that, among other things, does away with the refundable portion of the low-income tax credit which sends relatively small government checks to people who don’t make enough money to pay income taxes, but do pay sales taxes. Republicans tied that legislation in with the re-authorization of a penny sales tax that funds water and sewer projects in Atlanta, effectively pushing metro area Democrats to vote to end the tax credit despite supporting it. The bill also includes a tax credit on the purchase of energy-efficient appliances.

n House Bill 1221: Makes 78 pages worth of changes to the state tax code.

n House Bill 1321: Exempts 911 recordings of people dying in a natural disaster from release under the Georgia Open Records Act. The measure is less broad than an earlier proposal to restrict access to any 911 recording of “personal suffering,” because it is limited to natural disasters, sponsors said.

n House Bill 1322: The Meredith Emerson Act, named for a hiker who was killed. Hustler magazine filed an open records request for gruesome crime scene pictures, leading the Assembly to exempt crime scene photographs showing nude or mutilated bodies from being released to the public.

The Senate also approved Thursday nearly 150 gubernatorial appointments submitted by Perdue.