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Ga. lawmakers finish session, head into campaigns

By Bill Barrow and Ray Henry | 3/24/2014, 9:40 a.m.
Members of the Georgia General Assembly are ready to begin their campaigns for another term, fresh off a legislative session ...
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, left, walks with his staff after visiting the Georgia Senate on the last day of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol, Thursday, March 20, 2014, in Atlanta. Photo by Jason Getz/AP.

ATLANTA (AP) - Members of the Georgia General Assembly are ready to begin their campaigns for another term, fresh off a legislative session highlighted by scads of campaign-friendly maneuvers.

Improving tax revenues bolstered a $42.4 billion state operating budget and allowed Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and legislators to increase public education spending by hundreds of millions of dollars. Much of the new discretionary money will pay for a longer school year, shore up education employees' health insurance programs and finance construction.

The Republican-dominated body also reeled off a conservative checklist that will appeal to its core supporters. Republican legislators adopted measures to underscore their opposition to President Barack Obama and his health insurance overhaul. They voted to expand the places where people with a license to carry a weapon can take their guns, including bars. Religious leaders would be able to decide whether to allow people to carry guns in their sanctuaries under one such measure now headed to the governor's desk for approval or veto.

Democrats, despite being an overwhelming minority, got in on the action, too, by securing increases for the popular HOPE scholarship program for the second year in a row.

And legislators from both parties rushed to approve a constitutional amendment that would cap the state's personal income tax at 6 percent. Voters will have their say in November during elections for governor, other statewide executives and the entire legislature.

House Speaker David Ralston hailed the session as a success, though he rejected the notion that the agenda had anything to do with the coming campaigns. "I think Georgians are pleased with the direction the state is headed,'' said Ralston.

Here's a look at how lawmakers handled key matters.

  • BUDGET: Besides additional money for education, lawmakers increased spending on some programs that help low-income individuals; steered an additional $35 million to the expansion of the Savannah port; and dedicated more than $14 million to improving Georgia's emergency response system after a January winter storm left thousands of motorists, including children on school buses, stranded on Atlanta-area highways.

Lawmakers also approved $17 million in new debt - after they'd already held public hearings on the budget - for the Georgia World Congress Center to build a parking deck adjacent to the planned new downtown stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. Paying off the debt will cost about $30 million.

  • GUNS: After a two-year debate, lawmakers voted to remove the blanket prohibition on carrying firearms in bars and churches. Religious congregations will get to decide whether to allow guns on their properties.

  • MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Despite a concerted push by families affected by cancer and other maladies, the chambers couldn't reach a deal on legalizing a form of cannabis oil used in medical treatments.

  • ABORTION: Health insurance for state employees and Georgia policies sold on the insurance exchange as part of the federal Affordable Care Act could not cover any elective abortion.

  • AFFORDABLE CARE ACT: Lawmakers clarified that only the General Assembly can vote to expand the Medicaid insurance program under the federal health care law, ensuring that an appointed state board wouldn't pursue expansion over the objections of Republican legislators. Lawmakers also voted to bar state agencies from helping Georgia residents navigate any part of the Affordable Care Act, including the federally run insurance exchange.

  • "RELIGIOUS FREEDOM'' FOR BUSINESSES: Republican leaders stymied a proposal from their most conservative members to allow businesses to discriminate against customers if the act was based on sincerely held religious beliefs. The failed measure was similar to an Arizona bill that Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed amid national attention.