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Area lawmakers sift through survivors of Crossover Day at state legislature
Focus is now to turn bills into laws before April 2 adjournment
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The buildup to Crossover Day at the state Capitol in Atlanta was more subdued this year than last.

Eager to begin campaigning in an election year, lawmakers were tying up the loose ends of a nearly $21 billion budget by this point in 2014.

But no such time crunch was imposed on the General Assembly session in 2015, and free of those political constraints, leaders have a few extra weeks to dig in before wrapping it up.

The session is scheduled to conclude April 2.

Still, lawmakers were busy Friday in the House and Senate, the 30th day of the legislative session and deadline to approve bills in the chamber where they were first introduced. Dozens of bills were passed with a chance to make it to law by the send of the session.

“Crossover Day was filled with legislation from early in the morning until early in the evening,” said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.

Both chambers had already approved big-ticket items before Crossover Day, including a bill to fund transportation projects in the House and a constitutional amendment granting the state power take over failing schools in the Senate.

But even those bills have work left to be done on them. And state lawmakers representing Hall County have varying opinions on what the final laws will look like.

Big-ticket items

“Of course, transportation is still the big issue,” said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville.

The House-approved bill would generate $900 million a year to overhaul the state’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure by replacing the state fuel tax with an excise tax.

Miller said he expects the Senate to introduce changes soon, perhaps this week. Rogers said he expects the Senate version to include different formulas for raising excise taxes.

Republican lawmakers have pushed for a consumption-based model, which accounts for everything from the type of vehicle driven on roadways and its age, to raise tax revenue for transportation needs.

“We’re not through with this piece of legislation on the House side,” said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville.

But the funding challenge remains an ongoing narrative. Purchasing right-of-way and building roads is expensive, after all.

In a recent interview with The Times, Gov. Nathan Deal said the state needs upward of $1.5 billion annually to support ongoing infrastructure demands.

“We did not get to the billion-dollar mark,” Hawkins said, adding that the funding approved by the House is the “minimum amount we need” to maintain roads and bridges. “Most pieces of legislation don’t have everything we want, but at the end of the day we have got to provide safe transportation for Georgians.”

Miller said he believes the funding amount will “ultimately” be higher. But getting there could take some time.

“It’s not something you can drum up overnight,” Rogers said. “There will never be enough money. I’ve heard this for 21 years. ... I think we’re going to get to the number that’s necessary to have a significant impact.”

Medical marijuana is another big-ticket item that has generated controversy and debate all session long.

The House-approved bill calls for limited quantities of cannabis oil to be used by prescription to treat seizure disorders and eight other major medical conditions.

The Senate bill passed last week places more stringent regulations on the drug’s use and availability. It sets up a five-year clinical trial involving only people under 21 with seizure disorders.

“The Senate bill ... is not an answer to the families that have been separated,” Miller said. “I recognize that.”

Miller will carry the House bill in the Senate.

The past inaction of the legislature on the issue must be resolved, he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed a bill last week that will reform the Division of Family and Children Services and provide greater accountability in regards to child abuse records and reporting.

“It is a key piece of legislation for this session,” Miller said.

Local legislation

“We’re on hold on the local side,” Rogers said.

Hall County government officials had outlined a long and broad list of legislative priorities for state lawmakers to consider this year, including proposed changes to the Civil Service Board.

But Rogers said he has not received information he requested about the board’s costs, and that no movement will be made on the issue this year.

County officials have also been pushing for changes to how annexations are conducted, the result of a dispute with Gainesville.

Rogers said he hopes both parties have learned from past disagreements on the issue, and that no legislation is pending.

“Since we all live in Hall County together, hopefully we can agree to disagree without blasting each other,” he added.

There is one item of local impact, however, that Hawkins hopes will pass. The way revenue from the education special purpose local option sales tax, or E-SPLOST, is divvied between Hall County schools, Gainesville schools and the Buford system is not equitable, Hawkins said, with Buford taking more than is owed per student.

Hawkins said a proposal in the House is a “fair solution” to the problem.

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