ATLANTA — A bill allowing sick patients to legally take a marijuana derivative to ease their symptoms failed Thursday in the final hours of Georgia's legislative session, stalling amid a dispute between House and Senate lawmakers.
By law, the General Assembly meets just 40 working days annually. Any bills not approved by midnight Thursday do not become law. That fate awaited the so-called medical marijuana initiative as legislators made last-day maneuvers in an election-year session that was otherwise generally tame.
Proponents pushed a program that would allow people suffering from the side effects of cancer treatment, glaucoma and some seizure disorders to take oil derived from cannabis in the hope it might help their conditions.
Few lawmakers opposed the idea on principle, but senators used it as a last-minute bargaining chip. Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, attached the legislation to a separate proposal that would require insurance companies to cover behavioral therapy for Georgia children 6 and under who have been diagnosed with autism.
Republican House leaders balked at the insurance requirement because they are concerned it will raise costs for employers and workers. Unterman said she expected the differences to be worked out in a compromise committee of senators and representatives. It never happened.
Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, chided the Senate for not "bringing relief to hundreds of Georgia families."
In the final hours, lawmakers passed a bill expanding the places where people with a license to carry a weapon can bring their guns. Under the plan, houses of worship will get to decide whether to allow firearms inside their sanctuaries.
Residents will get to vote on whether to cap the state's top marginal income tax rate at 6 percent under a resolution approved Thursday.
Lawmakers also voted to allow the government to drug test people who seek or get government assistance to buy food. Those tests could be administered if a state official has a "reasonable suspicion" that a person is using drugs.
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, said most residents would find the testing requirement reasonable. "They get drug tested when they go to work. They get drug tested if they are on the police force," he said. "They are drug tested if they are on the Georgia National Guard. This just says if you're getting ... benefits, we want to know if you're clean or not."
Other Republicans countered that Georgia will wind up in court. "I do not see how a state bureaucrat, not a law enforcement officer, is supposed to determine what the phrase 'reasonable suspicion' means," said Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus.
Republican leaders appeared to settle a contentious internal GOP debate, bypassing a push from some conservatives to block Georgia from implementing education standards called Common Core. The curriculum guidelines were developed by education leaders and governors — including then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue — from both parties. The business lobby backs the standards, while some archconservatives blast them as a takeover of local schools.
House Speaker David Ralston opted for a study committee, approved in a floor vote hours before final adjournment. The panel of lawmakers, teachers and parents appointed by the speaker will be charged with exploring the origins of Common Core and the federal government's role in Georgia's K-12 education system. They will be asked to recommend any policy changes to state authorities.
Meanwhile, a two-year struggle over changes to metropolitan Atlanta's transit system came to a close. The major sticking point was whether to restructure the governing board. House Republicans were successful in shifting appointment power to the governor and mayors of Atlanta suburbs.
Lawmakers in both chambers agreed generally on relaxing rules that force MARTA to spend half of its sales tax revenues on capital improvements and half on operations. MARTA officials have sought that financial flexibility.
The two chambers also agreed not to require privatization of any MARTA operations. House Transportation Chairman Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, said MARTA's new administration has launched several such initiatives on its own.
The last day was devoid of visible financial wrangling, since lawmakers earlier this week approved a $42.4 billion operating budget for state government in fiscal 2015. An upswing in state tax collections allowed Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers to substantially increase funding for schools and other government programs after several years of lean budgets.
Deal noted the boon during a brief visit to the House floor Thursday, congratulating members — and indirectly making a re-election pitch for himself — for "the largest single increase (for schools) in seven years." That includes hundreds of millions of dollars for classroom operations, employee insurance and construction. The Republican governor didn't mention the campaign specifically, but his likely Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter, has accused him of shortchanging Georgia's education system.
Republicans, meanwhile, used the session to trumpet their opposition to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. They approved one bill that ensures only the Assembly has the authority to expand the Medicaid government insurance program. Under a U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the Affordable Care Act, states choose whether to extend Medicaid coverage to working households who make too much money to qualify now but not enough to afford private insurance.
Georgia Republicans oppose Medicaid expansion, and some of them feared that a board of the governor's appointees could broaden Medicaid without legislative approval. The panel in question controls some state health care policy, including taxes on Georgia hospitals that help finance Medicaid.
Separately, lawmakers approved restrictions on state offices helping citizens use another aspect of the Affordable Care Act: the online insurance exchanges where some middle-income Americans can buy private insurance policies.