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Hot-button issues start to flare up at Capitol
Area lawmakers sign onto bills over abortion, immigration, drug abuse
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With a quarter of the state legislative session over, 240 bills introduced and about 250 resolutions adopted, the meat of this year's political season is just beginning.

Arguments will heat up this week as legislators begin hearing committee reports and the 2011 supplemental budget hits the House floor for debate.

Hall County's legislators haven't shied from the controversial, showing support for bills that target illegal immigration, abortion and drug abuse. The hottest topic of the week was illegal immigration, with the introduction of an Arizona-style bill that would enforce employee status checks and allow law enforcement officials to check suspects.

Along similar lines, Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, was one of several senators to sign onto Senate Bill 40, which would penalize public employers who don't use a federal work authorization program to check the legal status of their employees. Miller isn't yet ready to sign onto the larger bill.

"Some areas of the bill need to be addressed and cleaned up. We need a measured and reasonable response that is fair for all," he said. "It's such a hot-button issue, and there's a part about transporting someone that I just don't like."

The bill allows punishment of anyone who helps or transports illegal immigrants. It's a vague explanation, Miller noted.

"For example, if my high school son is heading home from football practice and takes home some buddies and is stopped for speeding, the officer could decide to check the identification for everyone in the car," he said. "If someone in the car is found to be illegal, my son could be charged with trafficking, which is a very serious offense."

Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, also contributed a piece to the immigration argument by introducing House Bill 72, which would require permanent residents to take driver's license exams in English. He sponsored a similar bill last year that passed the House and Senate but "ran out of time" at the end of the session.

"There was a minor disagreement about one of the clauses, and it didn't get defeated but ran out of time," he said. "It just passed through the Public Safety Committee and is now on to the Rules Committee, so hopefully it'll get through."

Mills introduced it as a public safety issue.

"With some road signs going digital, it's no longer just look at a symbol and understand what it means," he said. "You need to be able to understand the digital readouts going over your head."

Mills also signed onto an abortion bill, which hasn't yet seen much discussion. House Bill 89, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would ban abortions after 20 weeks. Based on a Nebraska law, the bill quotes medical evidence that indicates a fetus is capable of feeling pain at 20 weeks.

"It's a very good bill, and we've got some work to do on it still ... but if we can get it perfected, it's going to save lives," said Mills, who worked on the bill Thursday with House Speaker David Ralston's office attorney. "To accomplish the intended purpose, you have to get the wording correct on these bills. You have to work at it to make sure all the words are properly defined."

The bill is stronger and built on more scientific reports than past abortion legislation in Georgia, noted Mills and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

"It's a good piece of legislation, and I feel like it'll help save unborn lives here in Georgia," Collins said. "I've always been a pro-life supporter, and I think it's something that pro-life people in this state can be proud to support."

Miller also had his mind on families when he supported Senate Bill 36, which would establish a program that monitors the prescription and dispensing of controlled drugs.

"I didn't realize how widespread it is that some physicians move from one state to another, write prescriptions like crazy and then pack up and leave," he said. "This database would help track doctors and pharmacies that are abusing the privilege."

The bill could potentially help patients who find roadblocks when buying certain sinus congestion products.

"We already monitor Sudafed, which can be used to make methamphetamines, but if we had a registry database, we could better track if people went to different drug stores to buy more than the limit," Miller said. "Similarly, a large family of five may not have been able to buy an adequate amount because of the regulations."

Above all, House members will be focusing on the 2011 supplemental budget this week before sending it to the Senate for approval.

"The governor laid out a good plan in dealing with what we need to take care of in this budget," said Collins, a floor leader for Deal and secretary of the House Appropriations Committee. "We had a few more cuts to make and some moving around to do, but the House did its job, and the budget does what we need it to do."

The bigger task is the full 2012 budget, noted Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who has attended several hours of budget meetings each day.

"We're about a fourth of the way done with the 2011 amended budget as we send it to the House floor, so that'll free us up to start on the 2012 budget," he said Thursday. "The governor wants to shore up education, and that's going to be the challenge for 2012 unless we come up with some more revenue to take care of some of our other needs with Medicaid and public safety."

The Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians has issued recommendations on the state's tax structure, but any changes won't create a permanent revenue stream for about a year, Rogers noted.

"To shift funding to stop teacher furloughs, which the governor is adamant about, there will be some downsizing of some agencies," he said. "A lot of us are trying not to introduce any other bills as we look at the budget. Many voters feel like we need to do the budget and go home, and I don't disagree with that."

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